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 State of the Parks Reports

Reflecting on the National Park Service's fragmented, ambiguous natural resource management programs, a work session on Science and the NPS at the 1978 superintendents conference deliberated on the serious deficiencies in scientific research. In somewhat milder language than the National Academy of Sciences had used in 1963, the session participants reported that there were "significant gaps" in basic knowledge of natural resources, that "decisions are being made on the basis of inadequate information," and that natural resource management programs "desperately need strengthening." [157] This admission by the superintendents appeared in an internal paper and, given past experience, could be absorbed within the bureau without a ripple.

The next year, however, a National Parks and Conservation Association report—the "NPCA Adjacent Lands Survey"—appeared in the winter and spring issues of in the association's magazine. It would lead to a major investigation of Park Service science and natural resource management. The survey, based on an assessment of park conditions, emphasized the great variety and potency of influences originating outside national park boundaries and threatening the remaining integrity of the parks' natural conditions. Such "external threats" (as they became known) included air and water pollution, clear-cutting, and intensive development. The association warned that the parks were being treated like "isolated islands" and that unless the external threats were seriously confronted, traditional efforts to preserve the parks from within would be "rendered meaningless." [158]

As with the Leopold and National Academy reports, this catalyst for improving science in park management came mainly from outside the Park Service. The Service had already been made aware of perils from activity near park boundaries, especially in cases such as alterations to the South Florida water system that affected the Everglades and clear-cutting adjacent to Redwood National Park. Indeed, the impacts of logging on contiguous lands had prompted a declaration in the Redwood National Park Expansion Act of 1978 encouraging protection of national parks from threats outside their boundaries. [159] Heretofore the Service had never analyzed the external threats collectively as a special type of problem for the parks, nor had it aroused the public to their seriousness and national scope. The National Parks and Conservation Association's 1979 study significantly enhanced awareness of such factors, ultimately leading to the emergence of external threats as not only an enduring part of the Park Service's lexicon and its policy and budget deliberations, but also as a widespread public concern.

As a result of the association's report and subsequent lobbying efforts, Congressmen Phillip Burton and Keith G. Sebelius, ranking members of the House Subcommittee on National Parks and Insular Affairs, requested that the Service make its own study of the condition of the parks. Assigned to compile the study, Roland Wauer, head of the natural resource management office in Washington, devised a questionnaire on park conditions and polled all superintendents. The ensuing report, entitled State of the Parks—1980: A Report to the Congress, amplified the National Parks and Conservation Association's study and, in addition to external threats, included data on problems originating within the parks, such as those caused by management actions or park use by visitors. [160] This document prompted the most significant boost to scientific resource management in the parks since the National Academy and Leopold reports.

Under Wauer's direction, State of the Parks was both comprehensive and candid. Rivaling in tone the National Academy study, the report noted that internal and external threats were causing "significant and demonstrable damage," which, unless checked, would "continue to degrade and destroy irreplaceable park resources." In many instances such degradation was deemed "irreversible." Among numerous specifics, State of the Parks revealed that "aesthetic degradation," air and water pollution, encroachment of nonnative plant and animal species, impacts of visitor use (wildlife harassment, off-road vehicles, and trail erosion, among others), and park operations (including "suppression of natural fires, misuse of biocides, employee ignorance") constituted the most damaging types of impacts. Although many threats resulted from activities within the parks, more than half came from external sources, such as commercial and industrial development and air and water pollution. [161]

In truth, the Park Service had not realized the variety and magnitude of the threats—an indication of the deficiency of its research programs. Seventy-five percent of the threats, the report stated, were "inadequately documented." And "very few" parks had the baseline information "needed to permit identification of incremental changes" that could be affecting the integrity of natural resources. The report cited a situation that had in fact existed since the founding of the National Park Service. It noted that the "priority assigned to the development of a sound resources information base has been very low compared to the priority assigned to meeting construction and maintenance needs. Research and resources management activities have been relegated to a position where only the most visible and severe problems are addressed." The document concluded with an admission that the Service's scientific resource management efforts were "completely inadequate to cope effectively" with the many problems affecting the parks' resources. The Park Service, it stated, "publicly calls attention to this serious deficiency." [162]

These remarkably critical observations represented the scientific (rather than the traditional) perspective from within the National Park Service, and voiced the frustrations of those who had long advocated a strong scientific research program to inform park management. The report received attention in the national press, which "alarmed" some high-level officials in the Service and in the Interior Department, as Wauer recalled. He added that, having second thoughts after they "realized the visibility" of the report, Service leaders began "playing down" State of the Parks because they thought it "made the National Park Service look bad." [163]

State of the Parks made specific proposals for improving natural resource management. These included a "comprehensive inventory" of natural resources, programs to monitor changes in the parks' ecology, individual park plans for managing the resources, and increased staffing and training in science and natural resource management. But the document contained no firm commitment by the Park Service that it would act on the proposals. Indeed, the proposal section read as if it were prepared by individuals who had no power to enforce change, only to recommend it. Believing that the Park Service was vacillating, and with no specifics on how the proposals would be implemented, Wauer feared the Service might let the State of the Parks effort "fade away" unless Congress required action. His subsequent contacts with National Parks and Conservation Association representatives and with congressional staff soon prompted a request by Congressmen Burton and Sebelius for the Service to prepare a "mitigation report" documenting the exact steps by which the bureau's own proposals would be realized. [164]

In January 1981, following a period of intense data gathering, the Park Service submitted its mitigation report to Congress, as the second State of the Parks report. Articulating a complex, ambitious plan, the document included several significant points. As an immediate step, the Service pledged to prepare a list of the most crucial threats, which would receive the highest priority for funding in upcoming fiscal years. In addition, the Park Service would complete its resource management plans for each park by December 1981. This planning effort, long under way but never finished, would strengthen justifications for future budget submissions to Congress. The resource management plans were to document the general condition of the resources, the necessary research, and possible management actions necessary to respond to particular problems. Finally, the Park Service promised a greatly expanded training program, to give superintendents and other personnel a better grasp of natural resource needs. Perhaps most important, through special training the Service would develop a stronger, more professional cadre of natural resource managers. [165] Together, these basic approaches constituted the most comprehensive, systemwide strategy yet devised by the Service to address the parks' natural resource problems.

Subsequent to the Leopold and National Academy reports of 1963, scientists had struggled for two decades to gain an effective role in national park management. Handicapped by a lack of experience in bureaucratic affairs, the scientists were the chief proponents of the ecological point of view in the Service—but they were confronted by leadership that embraced traditional practices and lacked a commitment to ecological management principles.

The Service had continued to respond to the pragmatic pressures of park operational needs, and the science programs never received the steady, continuing support given, for instance, to law enforcement in the 1970s, with greatly increased funding, personnel, and training throughout the park system. Nor did science get large, permanent facilities and consistent high-level support, as did interpretation. The scientists' role in the Denver Service Center's far-reaching planning, design, and construction programs remained extremely weak. And, in striking contrast to that of other key Service functions, the organizational status of the scientists fluctuated for a decade and a half before achieving long-term stability at a high level.

In the absence of sustained commitment from Park Service leadership, a strong push from outside the Service in the late 1970s and early 1980s finally motivated an earnest reconsideration of science in the national parks. With the Service having always operated without a specific science mandate from Congress, commitments made to Congress in the State of the Parks reports served as a kind of substitute—a nonlegislative scientific mandate. To establish accountability in its renewed effort, the Service pledged to submit progress reports to Congress. In addition, as noted in the second State of the Parks report, the National Academy of Sciences agreed to plan an "in-depth study" of the Park Service's science program— to undertake a repeat performance of its 1963 study, which had been, in effect, suppressed. The State of the Parks endeavors thus gave the Park Service, as an internal paper proclaimed during preparation of the first report, a "golden opportunity" to set "new directions of conservation leadership." [166] In 1981, with prodding from Congress, the National Park Service had a renewed opportunity to revise its traditional priorities and develop an ecological perspective on park management.


Preserving Nature in the National Parks
©1997, Yale University Press
sellars/chap6j.htm — 1-Jan-2003