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National Academy of Sciences Advisory Committee on Research in the National Parks


The National Park Service bears the responsibility of administering the national parks of the United States for the purpose for which they are or may be set aside by specific Acts of Congress. The Service is also charged with the responsibility of preserving these lands for the use and enjoyment of the public and for interpreting meaningfully the natural features. Finally, it must administer these lands as part of a complex public land system. National parks are units of the public domain and have a definable role within the totality of federal lands.

Carrying out these responsibilities requires knowledge about the parks and their problems and this can only come from research. Too frequently operational management acts even when the necessary information for action is fragmentary, or is lacking. Scientific research furnishes the knowledge and understanding of the complex natural elements of the national parks and their interaction with one another on which effective management can be based.

What is the past and present status of research in natural history in the national parks? Its status has been and is one of many reports, numerous recommendations, vacillations in policy and little action, insofar as actual financial support is concerned.

In 1929, the Secretary of the Interior appointed a Committee on Educational Problems in the National Parks to devise an educational or interpretive program for park visitors. Confronted with vast gaps in the scientific knowledge essential for this activity, the Committee recommended a research program to gather scientific information for the museum, education, and wildlife administrative programs.

Research as an activity of the National Park Service was made official with the creation, July 1, 1930, of a Branch of Research and Education to coordinate the new educational program.

Also in 1930, a comprehensive ecological management survey of the fauna of the national parks was launched and privately financed by the late George M. Wright. Beginning in 1931, this survey was gradually integrated into and financed by the Branch of Research and Education as an official National Park Service function. In the first publication resulting from this research program, Fauna Series No. 1 (1932) of the National Park Service, the wildlife research and management policies of the Service were officially formulated. Fauna No. 1 analyzed the major ecological situations prevailing in each park in the early thirties and recommended numerous management solutions as well as more research. It analyzed the Yellowstone elk situation, which had been a cause for concern since 1911, warned of further range destruction, urged elk control and further research.

In 1935, a second publication on wildlife research and management, Fauna No. 2, was produced. By that time, seven current biological research projects were described and the practice was established of designating and protecting as "research reserves" unique, unusually fragile scientific areas within the parks.

Between 1932 and 1940, 28 research reserves were listed in Ecology as established in 10 national parks and other areas under the National Park Service. There were approximately 25 biologists in the National Park Service at that time, mostly in field positions, financed from Civilian Conservation Corps funds. About half of the time of this staff of field biologists was spent in ecological reviews of proposed development projects; the other half was divided between wildlife management and research, which at that time were considered for practical purposes to be indistinguishable components of the total program. Fauna No. 4, Ecology of the Coyote in the Yellowstone, by Adolph Murie (1940), exemplifies the best of the biological research carried out by the Service during this period. In this publication, Murie repeated the warnings of severe range destruction by elk in the Yellowstone and indicated that a two-thirds reduction was necessary.

Moral support to research was given during this period by the Advisory Board on National Parks, Historic Sites, Buildings and Monuments, which has consistently urged greater support for research in natural history.

In November, 1939, in accordance with a reorganization program of the Department, the National Park Service biologists were transferred to the Fish and Wildlife Service, now called the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife, but their stations and duties unchanged. The word "research" was dropped from the Branch of Research and Education of the National Park Service. With the outbreak of World War II, nearly all of these biology positions lapsed, owing to the abolition of the CCC from which funds for most of the positions had been derived. A comparable staff and program in geology, established during the 30's, was eliminated preceding World War II and has not been restored.

Fauna Series No. 5, The Wolves of Mount McKinley, by Adolph Murie (1944) marked the last of the Fauna Series for the next 17 years.

The resident Park Naturalists contributed much, particularly in the earlier years, to the knowledge of the parks through observation, collections and inventories of park resources, and through some basic research. The geological research of Edwin McKee at Grand Canyon is a most notable example, but the observations of Arthur Stupka at Great Smoky Mountains, Frank Brockman at Mount Rainier, and the early work of Milton Skinner at Yellowstone, also illustrate the research opportunities and accomplishments of that period.

World War II reduced the naturalist staffs to a minimum. After the war the National Park Service reestablished eight biologist positions under the Division of Interpretation, which was the lineal descendant of the old Branch of Research and Education. The number of biologists was not restored to pre-war strength despite the increasing pressures on park resources; a situation experienced by no other professional group within the National Park Service except the geologists.

On February 10, 1945, the National Park Service issued a statement on Research in the National Park System, and its Relation to Private Research and the Work of Research Foundations. Its recommendations covered natural history as well as history and archaeology and advocated a research program to provide a constant flow of knowledge on the interrelations of life forms (ecology) essential for interpretation and management and an adequate staff of biologists. A list of 77 needed biological research programs was included, with priorities. The years passed -- but little happened.

During the period 1948-1957, research biologist Walter Kittams was stationed in Yellowstone to study the chronically serious elk situation and recommend corrective measures. He produced voluminous illustrated reports showing the spread of ecological destruction and urging an adequate elk-reduction program.

In 1953, the National Park Conference advocated research as a basic tool for interpretation and management. This led to inclusion in the Administrative Manual of a policy statement in support of research.

In 1956, the first (and last) meeting of National Park Service biologists since 1939 was held in Washington. A list of suggestions for strengthening and implementing the Service's biological program was submitted by the conferees, but was not implemented.

In 1957, a position of aquatic biologist was reestablished to handle research, interpretation, and management of fisheries and related aquatic resources. A previous fishery position had existed between 1934 and 1940.

In 1957, members of the first Everglades National Park Research Conference met to consider the urgent need for a research program to provide answers as soon as possible to various threats to the park's ecological existence. Special funds from the Service's Water Resources Branch were allocated annually for several years (until the first regular research funds finally were secured) for a study by the University of Miami of the park's freshwater needs -- which study was recognized as being by far the most acute and immediate need. However, even with special funds derived from other sources, financing of this study never approached the $20,000 annually which the University has shown would be the minimum required for ecological field research covering the subject. A research project on the ecologically essential role of fire in the park received no research financing.

In 1958, the first research funds became available for natural history (ecology and geology). The total allocated in the National Park Service for this purpose was $28,000, in subsequent years reduced to $26,880 by a four per cent administrative overhead deduction. The annual amount allotted for natural history research has remained at this low level to the present. However, miscellaneous year-end moneys, and, at the local level, occasional contributions from park budgets, and donations, may have equalled or exceeded the formal allotments. The pump-priming effect of even so small a research budget as $28,000 (supplemented by year-end and other miscellaneous small funds, as mentioned) stimulated research institutions and scientific collaborators to produce for the Service, by 1962, several dozen manuscript reports on critical ecological problems. The majority of these reports have indicated the most immediately needed corrective management measures.

On February 10, 1958, the National Park Service reorganized the Divisions of Interpretation (Natural History) and Ranger Activities "to strengthen both the research and protection phases of biological resource conservation." This reorganization made a "clear-cut division of responsibilities between interpretation and conservation functions in the field areas with respect to biological research and management." It transferred one of the eight Service biologists to the Division of Ranger Activities, with responsibilities for all operational functions, and gave the Division of Interpretation (Natural History) the responsibility "for developing and carrying out a program of research on biological resources." In that year also, biologist Coleman Newman completed his four-year research on the ecology of The Roosevelt Elk of Olympic National Park.

In 1961, the Advisory Board on National Parks, Historic Sites, Buildings and Monuments recommended an expanded research program, stating that history and archaeology have proved the value of research, but that research in natural history has remained inadequate. The National Park Service revived the long-dormant Fauna Series with No. 6, The Bighorn of Death Valley by Welles and Welles, summarizing an ecological research project that had been partially financed out of the Service's annual allotment.

In January 1962, the National Park Service issued a prospectus on a proposed Comprehensive Natural History Research Program.

In 1963, the Secretary's Committee on Wildlife Management in the National Parks issued a report on Wildlife Management in the National Parks which included recommendations on the control of elk herd in Yellowstone National Park. This report dealt with a problem of concern since 1911 on which recommendations were made in Fauna Series No. 1 (1932) published by the National Park Service, again in Fauna Series No. 4 (1940), and again in a series of reports during the period 1948-1957.

The Department of Interior is well aware of the unsatisfactory status of natural history research in our national parks. Secretary Udall in a letter of April 25, 1962, addressed to Dr. D.W. Bronk, then President of the National Academy of Sciences, said:

"The National Park Service has long recognized that broad ecological knowledge is indispensable to the integrity and general welfare of the national parks. During recent decades, however research undertaken by the Service has of necessity, consisted largely of projects stimulated by crises in park management, planning, protection, and interpretation. Some more broadly based and fundamental studies in the national parks have been made by scientists from universities, other federal agencies, and research organizations such as the Carnegie and Smithsonian Institutions, but no coordinated or long range plan of investigations has been developed. As a result, the needs of some areas have been fairly adequately met; in others, the accomplishments bear a haphazard relationship to actual needs; while for the remainder, comprising far too many areas, little has been done." The Committee agrees with Secretary Udall.

Research by the National Park Service has lacked continuity, coordination, and depth. It has been marked by expediency rather than by long-term considerations. It has in general lacked direction, has been fragmented between divisions and branches, has been applied piecemeal and has suffered because of a failure to recognize the distinctions between research and administrative decision-making, and has failed to insure the implementation of the results of research in operational management. Too few funds have been requested; too few appropriated. In fact, the Committee is not convinced that the policies of the National Park Service have been such that the potential contribution of research and a research staff to the solution of the problems of the national parks is recognized and appreciated. Reports and recommendations on this subject will remain futile unless and until the National Park Service itself becomes research-minded and is prepared to support research and to apply its findings.

These harsh comments are not to be interpreted as a criticism of much of the personnel of the Park Service. The Committee has been most favorably impressed by the quality of the men, their dedication to their profession and the morale which exists in the Service. There are simply too few research people and these few are inadequately supported. The Committee was shocked to learn that for the year 1962 the research staff (including the Chief Naturalist and field men in natural history) was limited to 10 people [1] and that the Service budget for natural history research was $28,000 -- about the cost of one campground comfort station.

The Committee recognizes also that a limited amount of excellent research in natural history has been carried on by the Park Service and that much has been accomplished by independent investigators with the encouragement and cooperation of the Park Service. In fact, the accomplishment of research in natural history in the national parks should be a matter of pride to the Service in view of the limited funds and personnel available for that purpose. A list of publications and reports (far too many of these have not been published) is appended to this report. [2]

It is inconceivable to this Committee that property so unique and valuable as the national parks, used by such a large number of people and regarded internationally as one of the finest examples of our national spirit, should not be provided with sufficient competent research scientists in natural history as elementary insurance for the preservation and best use of parks. The national parks idea originated in the United States, and, in spite of all deficiencies, the parks are far beyond anything similar elsewhere in the world. The need for sound knowledge on which to make decisions was expressed to the Committee in strong terms by several of those responsible for the operational management of some of the more important parks. Such knowledge results from research. An examination of research in natural history accomplished by the National Park Service, projects now under way and the conditions in various national parks forcefully demonstrate the need for an expanded research staff adequately supported and emphasizes the urgency of immediate action.

One of the first needs is a complete inventory of each of the national parks including information on such items as topography, geology, climate, water regime, soil, flora and fauna, land use and archeology, with distribution maps where appropriate. Insofar as historical records permit, the inventory should include past as well as present conditions. An inventory furnishes a base from which changes in biology and habitat can be judged and by which management practices can be planned. [3] It supplies also a major part of the information by which a park and its significance can be presented (interpreted) to the public.

The Committee found that a great deal of inventory information has been accumulated for some parks and that much of it is effectively presented in attractive form for the pleasure and instruction of the public. There are, however, obvious deficiencies, the correction of which demands research. Most significant is a lack of detailed information on geology, aerial photography, adequate maps of topography, soil types and the distribution of plants and animals.

The place of natural history research in the national parks is demonstrated by the clear and present danger to some parks because research on which proper management operations should have been based was not carried out in time; because the results of research known to operational management were not implemented; or because the research staff was not consulted before action was taken. In still other situations problems are recognized for the solution of which research is needed but none has been undertaken or planned, or if planned, has not been financed.

The condition of the Everglades National Park in its entirety is perhaps the most precarious. This park is the third largest in the National Park System and is the largest semi-tropical wilderness in the United States, a vast primitive area of prairie, swamp, and bay with unusual birds, fish, animals and plants in extraordinary and intimate ecological relationships. Its existence depends upon water, not only the annual quantity but the seasonal distribution which determines alternate periods of flooding and of drought. The development of canals and the diversion north of the park of water for agricultural and domestic uses has interfered so seriously with the normal supply of water that the future of the Everglades as a park is threatened and adjacent areas seriously affected. Insufficient fresh water in the Everglades influences the salinity of Florida Bay with potential deleterious effects on fisheries in the Bay and on its role as a main nursery ground for the Tortugas pink shrimp. A canal into Coot Bay has destroyed that area as a bird feeding center and additional canals contemplated for the convenience of motor boats will have further harmful effects on the ecology of the area. The importance of water for this park is clearly recognized and is a matter of serious concern to the management. However, much more information is needed on the ecology of the Everglades, on the effects of seasonal variations in the water supply and on the best and most intelligent way to provide water. Far too little research on these and related problems is under way. The adverse effect of the canal into Coot Bay should be corrected and further development of canals undertaken, if at all, only after thorough investigation. The Committee considers the future of the Everglades National Park a problem of pressing national concern.

The dangerous condition of the giant sequoias of the Mariposa grove in Yosemite National Park is another situation which disturbed the Committee. These trees, some of them 2,000 years or more in age and the largest living things on earth, are unique; they occur in limited areas in California and nowhere else in the world. However, roots of older trees have been damaged by artificially induced high water tables, by roadways, motor traffic and visitor paths close to the trees. Because of the loss of a substantial portion of the root system some trees have fallen and others leaned so badly that it was necessary to fell them. Vandalism by visitors who have removed bark, injured the cambium or otherwise harmed the trees is also a factor. Of greatest importance is that young sequoias are choked out by competing plants and natural reproduction is not occurring. The Committee is pleased to note that research is under way looking toward the preservation of these extraordinary trees. It is hoped that the investigation is not too late and that suitable management practices can be introduced to save the groves.

Other situations which demonstrate the need for research and/or adequate research staff in natural history in the National Park Service were noted by members of the Committee in their visits to the national parks or were called to their attention. Some of these were the following:

Recommendations have been made in the past to curtail development of public accommodations in the Great Basin of Big Bend National Park. The Great Basin of the Chisos mountains is a remarkable physiographic feature of great beauty, now being defaced and the habitat of rare animals thus degraded. The ecology of such an unusual area should have been investigated before development in order at least that knowledge of its characteristics could have been preserved, if the basin itself cannot be.

In Yellowstone National Park problems of maintenance and the necessity of relocating some roads because of unstable roadbeds near hydrothermal features, as well as interference with these features, could have been reduced or eliminated had a prior geological study of underground features been made. For example, a road between Bonita Pool, Daisy Geyser and a parking area caused compaction of the center cap of Bonita and contributed to the dormancy of the Daisy Geyser. Plans are now in preparation to relocate the road. The importance of prior research is illustrated by experience at Beryl Spring. Investigations by a hydrothermal geologist employed during the construction of a bridge and new road prevented destruction as well as expensive construction.

In the mid-1930's, crested wheat grass, not indigenous to the area, was sown on some previously cultivated lands to furnish forage for grazing animals. Most of this grass disappeared during a series of unfavorable growing seasons between 1944 and 1953, but some native grasses survived. This experience emphasizes the need for investigation of the ecology of vegetation as a basis for operational management. A study of the development of vegetation in limited areas protected from overgrazing by fencing would reveal those plants best adapted to the region and furnish the information needed for intelligent management.

Slippage brought on by construction operations greatly delayed the construction of Sections 15A6 and 15A7 of the Foothills Parkway in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Adequate geological investigations would have shown that the tilting of rock strata with layers of clay between the rocks would allow slippage and preventive steps could have been taken. Construction along 8G-l and 8G-2 on the Foothills Parkway (U.S. 73 to Butterfly Gap) caused a flow of freshets of sand into the stream and silting of waters on adjacent lands. This resulted in claims against the United States Government. Geological research before construction would probably have detected the weak condition of the sandstone and suggested measures to prevent the silting.

A water system project in Mount McKinley National Park, for which a swatch of vegetation fifty feet or more in width was clear-cut and bench-graded around the hillside for upwards of a mile, proved to be useless and is known locally as the "$90,000 icicle." This scar on the virgin wilderness and failure to accomplish the purpose could have been avoided if an investigation had been made prior to full-scale action.

Road construction in areas of permafrost in Mount McKinley National Park have resulted in serious and continued problems in road maintenance. Had research guidance been obtained from scientists experienced with permafrost in different locations, the magnitude and type of construction would have been suggested for critical areas, and the problems now existing would not have developed or would have been much reduced. Road construction on tundra slopes has produced bleeding scars which will heal slowly even with man's help. The extreme gullying and "raveling out" of slopes resulting from cuts and fills have dismayed some who made the plans. Botanists and geologists have long known the disastrous erosion which follows disturbance of the delicate equilibrium of soil and plants of tundra slopes. Research on a small-scale pilot project should have preceded the road construction to determine how to hold physical and aesthetic damage to a minimum.

Big Meadow Swamp was a unique park feature in Shenandoah National Park containing many plant species of unusual distribution and interest. The flora of this area has been under study for nearly 25 years. In 1962, the Park Service decided to extend the neighboring camp grounds into the swamp area with the result that the water level has been reduced by drainage, the flora has been seriously damaged in the construction and use of the camp site, and the ecology has been permanently altered.

In each of these examples, and there are others, operational management decisions were made by the National Park Service without benefit of adequate information such as comes from research, and the parks suffered serious damage.

A review of the areas included within the National Park System has also brought to light current need for specific research:

The causes of limited reproduction of the saguaro cactus in Saguaro National Monument are imperfectly known. Since the older cacti in the monument, when it was acquired in 1933, are dying out, some means to insure reproduction are essential to the continuance of this park for the purpose for which it was established.

Organ pipe and sinita cacti are not reproducing in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. The effects of a herd of approximately 800 cattle on the desert plant life are imperfectly known.

Numbers of surface streams and permanent springs in Big Bend National Park are not as large as they once were. The causes of this reduced water supply and its effects upon the animal life are not known. The reasons for the disappearance of bear from this park are not known.

The failure of Ponderosa Pine, Douglas Fir and Arizona Cypress to reproduce in this park has not been investigated. Modification of park features due to influences outside of the park require study to assess their effects upon the park and to provide guidance in restoration and further protection.

The only water supply in Carlsbad Caverns National Park is from Rattlesnake Spring -- an out-holding on which the park has some first rights to part of the flow. The present total flow from the spring is reported to be far less than when the park was first established, and a nearby stream which once ran year round is now dry most of the time. Causes for the reduced flow from Rattlesnake Spring are suspected but not confirmed. The deer population in this park may be too large. The mountain mahogany is overbrowsed to the point that it may not be able to reproduce. The deer population has not been investigated.

A dam on the Green River downstream from Mammoth Cave National Park prevents the water level in the cave from falling as far as it once did. The effects on the biology of the cave, on cave formations and on the solution rates are not known.

The finest wild flower display in Acadia National Park is that of Rhodora (Rhodendron Canadense) in Great Meadow, near Sieur de Merits Spring, in late May or early June. Since 1956, this display has been modest as compared to earlier years. The cause for this deterioration may be associated with changes in the water table caused by dams built by beavers. Adequate research on the ecological relations between the activities of the beaver and the mass display of Rhodora flowers is needed.

In calling attention to these specific examples for which research in natural history should have been done before action was taken, and in emphasizing the great need for research on existing problems, the Committee is fully aware of the excellent but limited researches that the Park Service has been able to accomplish. The demonstration that it is necessary to maintain a ratio of at least 70 per cent grass cover to 30 per cent bare soil if the elk ranges of the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone are protected from destructive soil erosion, and that areas damaged by over grazing have a ratio of 30 per cent grass to 70 per cent bare soil, is one fundamental finding for the proper management of elk herds in these parks.

The discovery by Welles and Welles that it is not disease, predators or competition with wild burros that threatens the desert bighorn sheep in the southwest but competition with man for ancestral watering places, offers a solution for the preservation of that species.

The discovery of the differences in the causes for large-scale invasion of mountain meadows above 7,500 feet by lodgepole pine in the national parks of the High Sierra, and for the excessive invasion by forest on the floor of Yosemite Valley at 4,000 feet should suggest reasonable methods of management for preserving these meadows.

Other examples of research accomplished could be cited but the Committee considers that the amount is too little, the problems solved are too few and the need is too great for the status of research in natural history in the national parks to remain in its present anemic condition.

1Total number NPS employees 5359; in Washington 386; in regional offices 1126; in National Parks 1638; in other Field areas 2209.

2See Appendix 5.

3The Committee has been impressed by the management plans developed by the Nature Conservancy of Britain. Of the eighty-five National Nature Reserves in Britain, more than half are now under approved management plans, each of which is a document of from twenty to one hundred pages prepared according to a standard pro forma pattern. The Committee recognizes that plans devised for the nature reserves in Britain are not applicable in toto to the national parks of the United States but believes that they contain suggestions of value, and has submitted to the Secretary of the Interior with this report examples of the management plans prepared by the Nature Conservancy of Britain.



Last Modified: Wed, Apr 5 2000 22:08:48 am PDT

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