Preserving Nature in the National Parks
A History
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Chapter 6
Science and the Struggle for Bureaucratic Power: The Leopold Era, 1963—1981

The Leopold and National Academy Reports

Appearing in 1963, the Leopold and National Academy reports were threshold documents. As the first studies of their kind—reviews of Park Service natural resource management conducted by experts from outside the bureau—they had much greater effect than would the numerous reports on park management and science that appeared in subsequent years. Indeed, long after its appearance the Leopold Report would be particularly well remembered. Not only did it receive widespread publicity, with reprints in several national publications, but also, as noted in the Sierra Club Bulletin, it enunciated ecological principles at an "extremely high political level." Additionally, its resounding nationalistic challenges became a kind of call to arms for the Park Service: that each park should be an "illusion of primitive America," and that the Service should preserve or create the "mood of wild America." These phrases inspired a patriotic, ethnocentric goal—to maintain the landscape remnants of a pioneer past as they were "when first visited by the white man" or when "viewed by the first European visitors." Ignoring Native American perceptions of landscapes and wilderness and the possibility of ecological change resulting from Native American use of lands, this New World imagery suggested a kind of wilderness pastorale that had enormous appeal to many in the Park Service. [23]

Reflective of the growing awareness of ecology and the complex interrelatedness of nature, the Leopold Committee responded to Interior secretary Udall's request to analyze specific wildlife management issues by placing the concerns in a broad ecological and philosophical context. It put "in good perspective," as Conrad Wirth commented, "the immediate, as well as the distant view." A. Starker Leopold, chairman of the committee and primary author of the study, acknowledged that the report was "conceptual not statistical," with emphasis on the "philosophy of park management and the ecological principles involved." [24]

The Leopold Report set the stage for serious tension within the Park Service when it stated flatly that the "major policy change" recommended was for the Service to "recognize the enormous complexity of ecologic communities and the diversity of management procedures required to preserve them." Even more, it urged that scientific research "form the basis for all management programs" and that "every phase of management" come under the "full jurisdiction of biologically trained personnel of the Park Service"—extraordinary challenges to a bureau long focused on accommodating tourism. [25]

In August 1963, five months after the Leopold study appeared, the National Academy submitted its report. As Leopold had done with his committee, biologist William J. Robbins both chaired the committee that prepared the report and was the principal author. The agreement by which the Park Service authorized the academy's study clearly reflected ecological concerns. It noted that the parks were "complex natural systems" that "constitute a scientific resource of increasing value to scientists in this country and abroad," and that for proper management they needed a "broad ecological understanding and continuous flow of knowledge." [26]

In a substantially longer document than the Leopold Report, the academy discussed the scientific aspects of managing natural systems, made detailed recommendations for change, and bluntly criticized the Service's failure to support science. It portrayed Park Service scientific research in unflattering terms. The program lacked "continuity, coordination, and depth," and was marked by "expediency rather than by long-term considerations." Further, it "lacked direction" and was "fragmented," "piecemeal," and "anemic," with insufficient funds being requested or appropriated. Overall, the report noted that the Service had little appreciation of research and its potential contributions to park management. To the academy it seemed "inconceivable" that scientific research was not used to ensure preservation of such "unique and valuable" properties as the national parks. [27]

Asserting that the Service had "some confusion and uncertainty" about the purposes of the parks, the report defined the parks as "dynamic biological complexes," which should be considered a "system of interrelated plants, animals, and habitat (an ecosystem) in which evolutionary processes will occur under such control and guidance as seems necessary." Beyond the large, popular mammals normally of concern to the Service, species unknown to the general public (such as blind fish found in park caves, or thermophilic algae and other organisms associated with hot springs) presented national park management with "challenging questions of a fundamental character." [28]

The National Academy made numerous recommendations potentially affecting Park Service organizational structure, personnel, and budget: in these regards, its impact was greater than that of the Leopold Report. Most important, it argued that the Service needed a "permanent, independent, and identifiable" scientific research unit that should have "line responsibility," not "simply an advisory function." To the academy, strength and "independence" were key elements for the program's success. Directing the program should be a "chief scientist," who would supervise natural history research and the research staff, and an assistant director for research in the natural sciences, who would handle the administrative aspects of research and related activities. Both positions should report to the Park Service director, thus avoiding intervening and possibly antagonistic levels of bureaucratic authority. In addition, the Service should assemble a staff of about ten "highly competent" scientists in the Washington office, who would evaluate research needs and thereby determine necessary scientific staffing in the parks. [29]

To further ensure independence from park managers, the report urged that scientists be stationed in parks but answer directly to the chief scientist in Washington. The research program should also be supported by special centers that would be established in or near selected parks. To be commensurate with science funding in other federal land-managing bureaus, Park Service science should receive about ten percent of the bureau's annual budget (at the time it received only a tiny fraction of one percent). Moreover, the report recommended that a scientific advisory committee be created for natural history research, and that, as necessary, each large natural park should have its own advisory committee. [30]

In a foreshadowing of resistance to substantive change to the science programs in the years ahead, Park Service leadership reacted defensively to the National Academy's barbed criticism. Although the Service responded with rhetorical enthusiasm to the report and Director Wirth urged that every employee "should become familiar" with it, in reality the leaders did not care for the document. [31] Howard Stagner, longtime member of the Park Service directorate, later recalled that they even considered suppressing the report, mainly because they did not want the blunt criticism to be made public. Stagner stated that the document's language was such that it could be "very damaging"; thus the Service decided, "Let's distribute it and say we agree with it." The Park Service did authorize release of the study, but, in Wirth's words, it did "not seem necessary . . . to reproduce the full report for general distribution." Rather than formal publication, the National Academy put the document out in typescript, as a soft-bound, inhouse report. Perhaps as a result, it seems to have received very little attention in the press and was largely forgotten by Park Service rank and file, other than scientists. [32]

Ironically, the National Academy's study was influenced by the Park Service's own internal, unpublished report, "Get the Facts, and Put Them to Work," prepared in October 1961 by Stagner with input from biologist Lowell Sumner, as part of Stagner's effort to prompt a review by the academy. In some instances the same wording even appeared in the two documents. Both viewed the science programs as "fragmentary" and "piecemeal," and one of the academy's sharpest criticisms—that the Service's science programs lacked "continuity, coordination and depth"—was taken verbatim from "Get the Facts." It is obvious, however, that even though the Park Service would allow certain criticism from within ("Get the Facts" [33] could be absorbed in the bureaucracy and rendered ineffective), its leadership disliked being publicly reproached and sought to limit the impact of the academy's report.

The environmental era raised resource management questions that clearly required scientific data. Regarding the Leopold Report, Conrad Wirth stated that it put the Service's 1916 congressional mandate into "modern language." [34] In fact, written by scientists (mostly biologists), both the Leopold and National Academy reports gave a scientific perspective to national park management—a kind of ecological countermanifesto that marked the beginning of renewed efforts to redefine the basic purpose of the national parks. In the short span of a few months in 1963, the Park Service found its natural resource management subjected to far greater scrutiny than ever before and faced recommendations for radical changes in its organization, operations, and policy. Much of National Park Service history since 1963 may be viewed as a continuing struggle by scientists and others in the environmental movement to change the direction of national park management, particularly as it affects natural resources.


Preserving Nature in the National Parks
©1997, Yale University Press
sellars/chap6b.htm — 1-Jan-2003