Preserving Nature in the National Parks
A History
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Chapter 7
A House Divided: The National Park Service and Environmental Leadership

The National Park Service is a large, complex, and geographically dispersed agency with strong traditions in both its policies and its management styles. It will not be transformed quickly or easily.—THE VAIL AGENDA, 1993

In looking back on the span of national park history, it is the infusion of an ecological and scientific perspective that constitutes the most substantive difference between late-nineteenth-century and late-twentieth-century natural resource management in the parks. As long as management emphasized little more than preserving park scenery, it did not require highly specialized data and an in-depth understanding of the parks' natural phenomena. The emergence of ecological concerns, however, necessitated scientific research in the parks as the only real means of comprehending the mysteries of the complex natural systems under the Service's care. This need fostered a slow buildup of Park Service ecological expertise, principally scientists and natural resource management professionals. Beginning mainly with the environmental era of the 1960s and 1970s, scientific and ecological factors became the chief criteria by which the Park Service's natural resource management—and much of its overall management—has since been judged. The State of the Parks reports reflected such criteria; and proponents of the reports looked forward to improvements in resource management.

In October 1991, a decade after the State of the Parks reports were issued in the early 1980s, a major conference on the national parks was held in Vail, Colorado, to commemorate the Service's seventy-fifth anniversary. Attended by several hundred experts from inside and outside the Service, the Vail conference reviewed the status of national park management and deliberated on future prospects. The meeting focused on several topics of special concern, among them the question of "environmental leadership"— by what means should the Service "embrace a leadership role" in sound ecological (and cultural) management? A draft report prepared in advance of the conference cited shortcomings in natural resource management and noted that in recent decades authorities had repeatedly called for a "strong science component" in the Park Service. But, the draft report acknowledged, the bureau's reaction had been "sporadic and inconsistent, characterized by alternating cycles of commitment and decline." [1]

Indeed, since the advent of the Leopold Report in 1963, critics had seized on reports by experts as a means of pressuring the Park Service to undertake resource management that was truly informed by science. Through these reports the Service was, in effect, being exhorted to assume "environmental leadership" in public land management. Among more than a dozen such efforts were studies in 1967 and 1972 by the Conservation Foundation; the 1977 report by Starker Leopold and Durward Allen; the two State of the Parks reports; and several studies by the National Parks and Conservation Association, including a multivolume work in 1988 and a special report in 1989. Seeking to enhance recognition of its 1989 effort (entitled National Parks: From Vignettes to a Global View), the association billed it as the successor to the Leopold Report. [2]

Like the Leopold study before them, these reports were promoted by scientists and environmentalists and presented a strong proscience message. Similarly, the 1991 draft Vail report recommended "sound ecological management" backed by a well-funded research program as a means of asserting environmental leadership. Following the Vail conference, two additional reports expressed an urgent need for park management based on scientific research. In 1992 the National Academy of Sciences issued Science and the National Parks, an extended analysis of the role and status of science in the Service, and the academy's first report on the parks since its 1963 effort; and in 1993 came official publication of the Vail Agenda, the summary report of the findings and recommendations of the Vail conference. [3]

Had the Park Service's response been resolute rather than "sporadic and inconsistent," there would have been little cause for such repeated, intense scrutiny. The reports (including those generated from within the Service itself ) amounted to a litany of criticism and demands for improved scientific resource management. But the Park Service had responded with its own litany—of promises to make substantive changes. Although the Service had increased its scientific efforts, its reluctance over a long period of time to address the issue forthrightly and establish a truly "strong science component" makes its promises seem largely rhetorical.


Preserving Nature in the National Parks
©1997, Yale University Press
sellars/chap7.htm — 1-Jan-2003