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


Concurrent with its new emphasis on the natural regulation of wildlife, the Park Service moved toward a policy of restoring natural conditions in plant communities. Previously, plant ecology had received little attention from the Service. Management of national park flora had been mainly either the domain of foresters or adjunct to the management of ungulates, with primary focus on ensuring adequate range for grazing. Despite the concerns of the wildlife biologists, control of insects, disease, and fires had continued unabated. But the new policies signaled an eventual end to total fire suppression and to extensive disease and insect control in park forests. [133]

Addressing the problems of traditional forest management, the Leopold Report had raised "serious question" about the wisdom of "mass application of insecticides in the control of forest insects," where "unanticipated effects on the biotic community . . . might defeat the overall management objective." Spraying, the report emphasized, should be discontinued until "research and small-scale testing have been conducted." [134]

The report also advocated a change in fire policies, viewing the "controlled use of fire" as the most "natural" means of managing vegetation. Controlled burning could help restore the prefire suppression density of forested areas, after which "periodic burning" could be "conducted safely and at low expense." Of specific concern was the situation in Sequoia and Yosemite, where areas long protected from fire had developed dense understory vegetation. In what would become a much-quoted phrase, the report stated that such overgrown areas were like a "dog-hair thicket." They were a "direct function of overprotection from natural ground fires." This accumulated fuel was "dangerous to the giant sequoias and other mature trees" because of the potential to cause abnormally hot and more damaging fires. The Leopold Committee believed this situation should be of "immense concern" to the Park Service. [135]

The Service, however, initially resisted changes in forest policies. Bolstered by continued funding from the 1947 Forest Pest Control Act, control of forest insects and disease had remained a vigorous program. In accordance with the act, a federal review board annually examined park budget requests for pest control; and in an August 1963 response to the Leopold Report, the Park Service stated that to date no park projects had been disapproved by the board. It also noted the support of the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service in planning and implementing the insecticide programs. Clearly identifying the program's goals with public enjoyment, the Service maintained that spraying insecticides in national parks was "restricted to areas of heavy public use where high value trees and the forest scene must be maintained." [136]

Especially following the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, pesticide use became a national concern. Nevertheless, extensive spraying continued in the national parks, covering much greater areas than were indicated in the Service's August 1963 statement on restricted use. For instance, in the mid-1960s (and in conjunction with similar efforts by the U.S. Forest Service on adjacent national forests), Grand Teton National Park began a three-year, million-dollar pesticide program to eradicate a native park insect, the bark beetle, from much of the park's backcountry. Voicing objections he had long held, the recently retired Service biologist Adolph Murie denounced spraying in the Tetons. In a 1966 National Parks Magazine article Murie wrote that, in the interest of "saving park scenery," spraying would "disrupt natural relationships between beetles and lodgepole pine," the host plant for the bark beetles. He placed this "destructive operation," in which Park Service crews systematically killed off native species, "in the same category" as coyote control, believing it destroyed "natural conditions and fundamental ideals" of the Service.

Murie blamed the current practices on his longtime adversaries the foresters, who were, he claimed, "frustrated" because they could not "practice their professions." He asserted that there was "little, if anything, for a forester to do" with national parks because there was no logging or other "commercial operations dealing with trees." Murie judged that many Service employees, influenced by Rachel Carson, opposed insect control programs, but that "top administrators" had been "conditioned to accept bug control as sacrosanct, normal park dogma" and were hesitant to terminate a long-standing program. Illustrating a glaring Park Service double standard, he quoted one "high ranking" official as saying that the Service would " 'wring some poor woman visitor's neck for picking a flower and at the same time permit bug people to spray trees, kill large areas of vegetation and pollute the soil.' " [137]

Replying sympathetically to these concerns, Assistant Secretary of the Interior Stanley Cain asserted that the Park Service was already "changing its attitudes and programs in the direction Murie wants it to go." Yet only gradually did the changes take place. Even after the Forest Service encouraged early termination of the Grand Teton spraying, having decided it would do no good in the long run, park management stalled. The Park Service was hesitant to end the program because it benefited the local economy through the creation of jobs. But by 1968, the Service's official policies placed tight restrictions on control of native insects and forest diseases, which were recognized as "natural elements of the ecosystem." In the 1970s and 1980s, widespread use of chemical biocides was replaced by the restrictive Integrated Pest Management program. Intended to avoid use of chemicals except when absolutely necessary, this program would emphasize natural controls with minimal environmental effects, including use of naturally occurring predators and disease agents. [138]

The Park Service was equally reluctant to change its fire policies. In response to the Leopold Report, Director Conrad Wirth (surely influenced by the bureau's tradition-bound foresters) had stated that although "less intensive" fire control deserved serious consideration, "no change" in policy was "contemplated at this time." Through much of the 1960s, the goal of total suppression of forest fires in the parks remained in effect. In the opinion of Park Service fire management expert Bruce Kilgore, the public seemed "quite ready" to accept a "reasonable explanation" of new fire policies, but the Service did not. The "biggest problem was within our own agency," he observed. Certainly the Service's top forester, Lawrence Cook, resisted change, withholding for months the release of a mid-1960s study of fire ecology in Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks that threatened the total fire suppression policy to which he adhered. [139]

Despite such reaction, fire-related research accelerated, and fire was an important catalyst for the study of plant ecology. The Service's initial research into fire, conducted by biologist William Robertson in Everglades in the 1950s, had indicated the decline of native sawgrass and pines in areas of the park where fire suppression had been vigorously conducted. This prompted the park to set fires to simulate fire's natural role. Robertson's objectives in his study suggested the necessarily close connection between understanding fire and understanding plant ecology. Setting goals that future fire researchers would also pursue, he hoped to determine the effect of fire on soils; the "effect of burning on the vegetation, including plants killed and injury to those that survive the fire"; the "recovery of the vegetation after fire"; and the "probable course of development of the vegetation in the absence of fire." [140]

Fire concerns contributed to a greater integration of plant and animal research, and thus to a broader ecological understanding of the parks. For instance, research in the 1960s on fire in the giant sequoia forests focused on a broad ecological picture with a variety of interrelated topics. Biologists studied the effects of fire on native trees and on birds and mammals, as well as on sequoia seed and cone production: they studied the chickaree squirrel's role in breaking apart sequoia cones and releasing seeds, the relationship of invertebrates to the sequoia's reproduction and life cycle, the buildup of flammable debris under sequoias and other native trees, and forest succession when fire is suppressed. Similarly, the study of fire ecology led to a deeper awareness of the ecological influences of American Indian activity than had ever before existed in the Park Service. Robertson's Everglades study had mentioned the probability of extensive impacts from prehistoric fire practices in the area. In the 1970s researchers in Sequoia determined that fires set by many generations of Indians constituted a significant part of the fire history of that part of the Sierra Nevada. Within the Service this research opened the way toward an understanding that, particularly because of fire practices, areas largely untouched by European Americans but long used by Native Americans were probably not in a truly pristine condition. [141]

Fire ecologist Bruce Kilgore believed that outside pressure helped bring a change in Park Service fire management. The Service was, he wrote, "pushed considerably by certain conservation organizations," which were especially concerned that the giant trees of Sequoia National Park might be threatened by extraordinarily hot fires resulting from accumulated, unburned forest understory. Most of all, Kilgore credited the Leopold Report with being the true catalyst for change—it was the "document of greatest significance to National Park Service [fire] policy." In response to the report and its emphasis on fire's threat to the giant trees, Sequoia National Park took the lead in changing fire management policy. By 1968 the park had launched an aggressive program to reduce the "dog-hair thickets" threatening the big trees. [142]

Fundamental aspects of the change in policy were the recognition of fire's ecological role and the acceptance of fire as a valid means of management. In contrast to the Service's long-established suppression efforts, the 1970 management policies acknowledged fire as "one of the ecological factors" affecting the preservation of native plants and animals. Under closely controlled circumstances, certain fires could be allowed to "run their course" in parks. [143] Such "prescribed burning" came to include allowing selected naturally caused fires to burn, and purposely setting fires in designated areas to simulate natural fires—especially where suppression efforts in the past had seriously altered plant ecology. All other fires, however, were to be suppressed. Accordingly, the parks began preparing "prescription" fire plans that designated which areas needed burning and under what conditions (based on factors such as forest types, moisture content of the forest, humidity, wind, topography, and weather forecasts, as well as human safety and proximity to buildings and privately owned property). Over time, prescribed burning would undergo some refinement; although criticized at times, not well understood by the public, and perennially short of staffing and funding, the program would remain. [144]

The Park Service's official policy shift toward prescribed burning came several years in advance of the Forest Service's policy change. Concerned about flammable forest debris accumulated during the decades of total suppression, Sequoia's managers moved rapidly to begin prescribed burning. In addition, the forest understory was thinned by hand to reduce heat intensity and ensure that prescription burning could indeed be contained. The prescribed burning program spread from Everglades, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon to other parks. By the mid-1970s the Service had begun implementation in a dozen parks, including Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Carlsbad Caverns, Wind Cave, and Rocky Mountain. Already parks had intentionally allowed more than six hundred fires to burn, covering nearly ninety thousand acres. [145]

In a 1974 press release the Park Service defended its new fire policies, identifying the dense understory in Sequoia as a "severe threat" to the big trees because it would "provide the fuel for devastating crown fires [in the tops of trees] that would kill these ancient monarchs." The release also stated that scientists believed that "not all fires are bad" and that some fires were "absolutely necessary" to maintain the "ecosystem of a park in its proper natural balance." In 1976 the Park Service announced an agreement with the Forest Service to allow "some naturally caused fires" (those that fit the fire prescription) to cross the boundary between Yellowstone and the adjacent Teton Wilderness, in the Bridger-Teton National Forest, thus extending the program beyond park boundaries into national forests, where similar policies were beginning to take effect. This agreement foreshadowed cooperative arrangements between the Park Service and other land-managing agencies. The Service affirmed its new fire policy for parks in its 1978 Management Policies, which stated that most fires are "natural phenomena which must be permitted to continue to influence the ecosystem if truly natural systems are to be perpetuated." [146]


Preserving Nature in the National Parks
©1997, Yale University Press
sellars/chap6h.htm — 1-Jan-2003