Bringing Science to the National Parks

The U.S. National Park Service (NPS) has been criticized for neglecting the science necessary for good land management. A new plan aims to bolster research in the parks, by investing millions more dollars in cataloging species, monitoring park conditions, hiring scientifically trained managers, and enticing academics to conduct research in the parks. The goal, say NPS officials, is to enable managers to anticipate environmental problems rather than lurch from crisis to crisis.

Since the 1960s, a series of reports has found that inadequate science is hampering management decisions in the national park system. A number of policies have been slammed by scientists, challenged in court, and even debated on Capitol Hill--from managing elk in Yellowstone to restoring the Florida Everglades. In response, Congress in 1998 passed the National Parks Omnibus Act, which directed that the parks' management be "enhanced by ... the highest quality science and information."

Last August the NPS launched a new program, the Natural Resource Challenge, to bolster the science underlying park management. One of the first priorities is to figure out what's actually in the parks, by mapping soils and vegetation, tallying species, monitoring air and water quality, and so on. To do so, the Park Service is investing $14 million this year in natural resources management, on top of the existing $100 million. The agency also wants to double its scientifically trained staff who apply research to management problems. NPS leaders hope Congress will fund the program at $20 million a year for four more years.

NPS associate director of natural resources stewardship Michael Soukup, who's leading the new effort, also wants to open the parks to academic scientists. To ease the way, the NPS is standardizing forms for applying for research permits and expects to post them on the Web by December, Soukup says. In addition, within the next few weeks, the NPS will blanket universities with brochures describing a new "Sabbatical in the Parks" program starting later this year. It will offer scientists who want to spend a few months doing field studies in parks logistical support such as housing, computers, and dry lab space.

Biologists are welcoming these moves, but many question whether the Park Service can pull it off. Indeed, the last time the Interior Department, the NPS's parent agency, attempted a major science reform--moving the park's 100 basic researchers into a new agency that Congress later folded into the U.S. Geological Survey--science was left worse off, says ecologist Mark Boyce of the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

Critics also question the extent of support for the science program among top NPS leaders. "Part of the challenge is to change the culture of the Park Service," concedes Gary Machlis, NPS visiting chief social scientist.