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

Building an Environmental Record

One of the significant changes repeatedly recommended in the reports was for the Service to inventory the parks' natural resources and monitor their condition over time. Without such data, a scientific understanding of the parks could not be achieved and any Park Service claim to leadership in environmental affairs would be seriously undermined. Virtually every report emphasized the need for this information—and the Service accrued a considerable history of promises, each followed by resistance and procrastination.

Long before the external reports began to appear in 1963, the Park Service had declared its intention to inventory and monitor species. Made official policy in 1934, Fauna No. 1's wildlife recommendations included the charge to undertake for each park a "complete faunal investigation . . . at the earliest possible date." Although making little progress, the Service repeated its commitment to this task through the 1930s and during World War II—for instance in a February 1945 report on research. Such declarations became more common in the environmentally conscious 1960s. The 1961 internal document "Get the Facts, and Put Them to Work" recognized the need for a "continuous flow of precise knowledge" about park resources. Two years later, Director Conrad Wirth stated that the insistence of the National Academy Report on inventorying and monitoring in the parks was a "basic recommendation"—that it would "be implemented as rapidly as possible." And in October 1965, the Service reiterated its commitment to prepare "an inventory of existing biotic communities" in the parks. [4]

Fifteen years later, the Service issued its first State of the Parks report, aimed at gaining congressional support and funding for the Service's resource management and science programs. The report admitted that there was a "paucity of information" on park conditions and called for "comprehensive inventory" and "comprehensive monitoring." Several large parks, such as Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah, Everglades, and Yellowstone, did begin to make some headway. Responding to 1980 legislation for Channel Islands National Park that called for an analysis of species to determine "their population dynamics and probable trends as to future numbers and welfare," Channel Islands developed an ambitious inventorying and monitoring program. In addition, the Service substantially increased its monitoring capabilities for air and water quality in the parks.

This progress was offset by widespread neglect—in spite of the need for data to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act and especially with the Endangered Species Act. In a 1988 commentary on inventorying and monitoring, journalist Robert Cahn, awarded a Pulitzer Prize for an earlier analysis of national park issues, reported that "possibly the greatest failure" in Park Service history was the bureau's not having gained "solid knowledge" about park resources through "systematically identifying them and regularly determining their condition." A similar charge appeared in the 1989 National Parks and Conservation Association report on park management. And the same 1991 Vail conference draft document that exhorted the Park Service to "embrace a leadership role" in environmental affairs noted that more often than not the Service knew "little about the actual resources parks contain, their significance, degree of risk, or response to change." As had others before it, this document urged a "comprehensive program" to inventory and monitor park resources. In 1993, six decades after Fauna No. 1 and three decades after the Leopold and National Academy reports, this entreaty was repeated in the Vail Agenda. [5]

Such vacillating, sporadic support as was given the inventorying and monitoring programs mirrored to some degree the Service's overall response to the State of the Parks reports, the principal attempt of the 1980s to bring a scientific, ecological perspective to national park management. By 1982, only a year after the later of the two reports appeared, the Service's response had begun to "lose its focus," as William Supernaugh noted in a detailed study of the State of the Parks results. Reorganizations and shifting priorities in the Washington office reflected a weakening of resolve by the Park Service directorate. Supernaugh, who was in Washington during the early 1980s, recalled that the professional staff there had been "transferred, restructured, given contradictory assignments and unclear instructions, ignored, rewarded, had their jobs abolished, transferred or redescribed, served under three Associate Directors in two separate organizational lines, [and] served through a succession of Division Chiefs." He stated that the "end result" had been "an overwhelming lack of consistency of purpose and continuity of direction."

This situation was exacerbated by the lack of support from Interior Department officials under Secretary James G. Watt. Progress reports to Congress and other internal follow-up reporting procedures recommended by State of the Parks were soon abandoned. In the face of opposition from Secretary Watt, a National Academy study of science in the parks (also called for by State of the Parks) was postponed, not to be undertaken until the close of the decade. [6]

Other elements of the State of the Parks reports were in fact addressed. Prompted by the reports, the Service developed a variety of training courses in the 1980s to improve its natural resource capability, providing superintendents and other employees with a better grasp of ecological management principles and environmental law. This effort remained strong into mid-decade; then, with decreasing budgets and competition from other programs, the variety of courses and the number of trainees declined markedly between 1987 and 1993.

Most ambitious of the training efforts was a long-term course designed for the parks' natural resource managers. Begun in 1982 and modeled on training developed in the Southwest Region in the 1970s, this course initially extended over a two-year period, during which the students divided their time between training and their regular assignments. But, like other natural resource training, it was soon cut back. In 1986 the program encountered stiff resistance from the regional directors, who sought to shift the funds to other uses. In reaction, Director William Penn Mott resorted to different funding sources and scaled down the course. With the concurrence of many natural resource managers who wished to improve the course, the Service began a reevaluation in the early 1990s. Soon, however, this effort was subsumed (and the long-term course was suspended) in an extensive reevaluation of all training programs. [7]

State of the Parks helped prompt increases in funding and staffing for scientific research and natural resource management. The decentralization of these programs, the lack of a Servicewide system for detailed tracking of funds, the perennially vague distinction between research and resource management, and park management's frequent shifting of funds all serve to make calculation of increases uncertain. However reliable they are, budget data from the time of State of the Parks through the early 1990s indicate that the overall natural resource management budget (including research) quadrupled between fiscal years 1980 and 1993, from approximately $23 million to just over $95 million. During the same thirteen-year period, the research portion of that budget doubled, from about $10 million to $20 million. (These figures do not reflect the declining value of the dollar.) By 1993, natural resource activities amounted to about 9.23 percent of the Service's operating budget of $1.03 billion, while scientific research remained quite low—just under 2 percent (not in addition to, but included within, the 9.23 percentage).

Between fiscal years 1980 and 1993, Servicewide natural resource management staffing increased more than fivefold, from just above 200 positions to 1,164. Throughout this period many of the positions were part-time and entailed duties other than natural resource management. Also, a large number were filled by "technicians"—individuals who undertook many resource management activities but generally did not direct them. There was little increase in the number of research scientists: among the total natural resource management positions for 1993 were 100 researchers— about the number estimated by State of the Parks for 1980. [8]

Thus, by the 1990s, attempts to improve the Park Service's scientific resource management through training, funding, and staffing had met with only partial success. Even with the increases in funding and staffing since State of the Parks, the National Academy in its 1992 report asserted that the Service's science program was "unnecessarily fragmented and lacks a coherent sense of direction, purpose, and unity"—an echo of the academy's statement thirty years previously that the science effort was "fragmented" and lacked "continuity, coordination, and depth." In 1993 David A. Haskell, chief of resource management at Shenandoah National Park, commented that the "critically needed focus on science as the basis for park management has not occurred." He added that there was "no definite signal" that the Service had "made the commitment to become a resource stewardship agency." [9]

Yet Haskell himself, working with Superintendent John W. (Bill) Wade, had built up Shenandoah's natural resource management program to include a sizable contingent of ecologists, biological technicians, and data management personnel. The park's inventorying and monitoring of flora and fauna, begun in the mid-1980s, made steady progress; so did its air and water quality programs. Among the ecological processes that the park began to monitor were stream aquatic habitat, watershed acidification, forest response to gypsy moth infestations, and deciduous forest watershed dynamics. Integrated into park operations, Shenandoah's natural resource program became one of the most effective in the system—and the kind of expertise and inquiry it utilizes today is mirrored by that of Channel Islands, Sequoia—Kings Canyon, and Yellowstone, among other parks.

While these parks made substantial advancement, many did not. Despite gains in recent years, a 1995 Washington office report noted a need for properly trained natural resource management specialists throughout the park system. Overall, the Service had an average of just over one per park; but the report added that, in truth, "there are a few specialists in a handful of parks and no specialists in many parks." [10] Trained resource managers were distributed unevenly throughout the system, and programs as strong as Shenandoah's were the exception rather than the rule.

This unevenness was but one factor accounting for the variability in quality of the Park Service's resource management during the 1980s and early 1990s. At Carlsbad Caverns, for instance, after the 1986 discovery of the vast lower regions of Lechuguilla Cave, the Service took a strong preservation stance, rejecting proposals to open the cave to tourism. Instead, it determined Lechuguilla's pristine natural habitat to be worthy of scientific exploration and study rather than subjecting it to the kind of intensive public use permitted in other of the park's caves. Exploration revealed a variety of rare geological, paleontological, and biological features, plus more than eighty miles of passages, making it the seventh-longest known cave in the world and the deepest limestone cave in the country. Well before the discovery, the park had established a special cave resource management position, the first such position in the Service. The incumbent, Ronal C. Kerbo, gained the park's support for having Lechuguilla officially designated a wilderness cave, which would have been the first designation of this kind. The effort proved unsuccessful, however, owing to both internal and external doubt about separately designating subsurface wilderness beneath an existing wilderness designation on the surface. Lechuguilla's prominence and the management debates it engendered helped prompt the Service to create a national cave management specialist position to assist park managers across the system with similar issues. [11]

On another front, continuing well into its fourth decade, the study of wolves and moose at Isle Royale has become the longest-running research ever conducted on mammalian predator-prey relationships in a national park, and perhaps in the world. Begun in 1958 by Purdue University biologist Durward Allen, the study (conducted mostly during winter) has been continued by his former doctoral student Rolf O. Peterson, a professor at Michigan Technological University. One of the most highly regarded research efforts in the national parks, the program has endured mainly because of the initiative and determination of Allen and Peterson. Although it never established a wildlife biologist position at the park, the Service at times provided significant logistical, funding, and political support. To prevent disturbance of both wolves and moose, and of the research itself, management officially closes the park each year from November 1 to April 15. And following a decline in the island's wolf population in the 1980s, the park made an important shift in policy. Anticipating considerable public scrutiny, it abandoned its long-standing adherence to natural regulation of the wolf and moose populations, which prohibited direct interference with either species (the researchers' observation of the wolves has always been conducted principally from aircraft during the winter months). Instead, the park approved a blood-sampling and radio-tracking program for the wolves in hope of determining reasons for their population decline. [12]

In Yellowstone, the natural regulation policy for the northern elk herd has never been rescinded, and it remains the source of recurring, heated controversy. Following the 1967 moratorium on reducing the number of elk, extensive research on the northern range got under way, addressing a broad variety of ecological questions. With some exceptions, Park Service biologists have maintained that natural regulation is working. Other scientists, mostly outside the Service, have asserted that the policy is destructive of range habitat; and in the mid-1980s, writer Alston Chase made a stinging attack on the environmental consequences of the park's natural resource management, particularly with regard to elk. Similarly, the National Academy in its 1992 report on park science criticized the Service for the "deteriorating condition of the northern range." The academy pointed out that the controversy over range condition "stems in large part from the lack of longterm data." Enlarging the perspective to the national parks in general, the academy observed that "substantial and sustained" research efforts were necessary to detect changes in habitat. [13] The Park Service's long neglect of science had crippled its recent research efforts and thus the credibility of its natural resource programs.

Somewhat like Alston Chase in his critique, in 1993 ecologist Karl Hess, Jr., charged that the failure to control Rocky Mountain National Park's elk population and to implement an approved prescribed fire program had caused serious modification of that park's ecological conditions. Both Chase and Hess believed that the ecological problems they discerned were a direct result of traditional management attitudes. In Chase's view, managers were so focused on visitor safety and protection and so indifferent to science that they embraced destructive resource management practices. Hess found parallel circumstances in Rocky Mountain, and both writers argued that the dominant park management culture had co-opted the scientists' independence and initiative. [14]

The impact of elk on habitats in Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain, the monitoring of air and water quality in Shenandoah, and the decline of Isle Royale's wolf population reflect not just the plight of park resources, but also the fact that parks are part of larger ecological systems and are readily affected by external influences. Even as deep beneath the surface and seemingly isolated as Lechuguilla Cave is, its exceptionally pristine qualities face potential external threats such as contamination by oil and gas development on nearby lands and unregulated entry and use should the cave be found to extend to areas outside Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Parks like Redwood, Big Thicket National Preserve, and Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, which have small, fragmented land bases, are particularly vulnerable to the effects of nearby land uses.

With ecologically disastrous activity immediately adjacent to many parks—for example, clear-cutting next to Olympic and Redwood, and agriculture and hydrological manipulation upstream from Everglades—the Park Service has long been in situations badly in need of broader, more cooperative solutions to resource management issues. External threats highlighted in the State of the Parks reports to Congress were prompted by the National Parks and Conservation Association's 1979 study of adjacent lands. These reports sought to create a greater sense of urgency, systemwide, regarding uses of neighboring lands; subsequently, the Service made efforts to improve cooperation with local and regional land managers, both public and private. As this broader, more inclusive approach to resource management began to take on more specifically scientific aspects (such as the interest in preserving gene pools and biological diversity), it became subsumed under the term "ecosystem management." This phrase, employed by the Service's biologists since at least the 1960s, was adopted by management as a concept for addressing local and regional resource issues jointly with other land managers. Still loosely defined, it remains more a concept than a reality—the focus of frequent rhetorical flourish as well as serious deliberation. [15]

Perhaps the most prominent ecosystem management effort is in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem—a vast area (also not precisely defined) surrounding Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, and including national forests and wildlife refuges, as well as lands under the control of state and local governments and the private sector. The Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee, consisting of the chief federal land managers in the area, has sought to establish common ground in the management of grizzly bears, elk, wolves, fire, and tourism, among other concerns. [16] As fires swept vast expanses of Yellowstone and surrounding lands in the summer of 1988, the committee coordinated suppression activity; subsequently, it coordinated rehabilitation efforts. It also undertook a postfire assessment and review of fire policies in and around the park (a review was mandated not only for Yellowstone but also for those national parks, forests, and other federal lands with fire management programs). At issue were the appropriateness of Yellowstone's existing policies and the degree to which they had been implemented. Like other parks, Yellowstone had to update its fire management plan. Ultimately, although the revisions refined the tactics of fire programs in Yellowstone and other parks, they mainly vindicated existing fire policies and left their principles largely intact, including use of both natural and management-ignited prescribed fires. [17]

Greater Yellowstone is the scene of another highly controversial ecosystem management issue—the reintroduction of gray wolves, eradicated long ago from the park through aggressive predator control. A recovery effort for threatened and endangered species under the authority of the Endangered Species Act, the reintroduction project was conducted by the Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with active support from other public and private interests. It culminated in the initial release of wolves in the park in March 1995. The basic goal of the program is to establish wolves in the Yellowstone ecosystem sufficiently that they are no longer listed as an endangered or threatened species in the area. [] Widespread public interest in the recovery is engendered not only by the controversy invariably surrounding wolves, but also by the wilderness symbolism of the wolf and the effort to restore a key element of primeval Yellowstone.

As with fire policy and wolf recovery, ecosystem management relies on cooperative arrangements to influence regional land planning and use—an exceptionally difficult enterprise in an era of highly polarized debates over land use. Also involving complex working relationships with outside interests, the Service's "partnership" programs—with their roots in the parks and recreation assistance provided during the 1920s, and under Conrad Wirth in the 1930s—became particularly prominent (and acquired the "partnership" designation) in the 1980s. Through promoting parks and recreation projects to be developed and managed jointly with other public entities or with the private sector, these programs represent another Park Service effort at local and regional cooperation. [19]


Preserving Nature in the National Parks
©1997, Yale University Press
sellars/chap7a.htm — 1-Jan-2003