U.S. National Parks' Cultural and Natural Resources Threatened

National Park Service

Unchecked development, thousands of invasive species, climate change, and reduced budgets and staff all threaten America's national parks, says a decade-long study released earlier this week by the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. Also at risk, according to the study, are millions of artifacts, from Native American cultures to more recent historic events, largely because these items either are not being protected or have never been cataloged.

Titled The State of America's National Parks, the report warns that prehistoric and historic sites, including battlefields, are suffering primarily because they receive less attention and funding than do parks known for their natural beauty. As a result, looters and vandals are rapidly destroying America's cultural treasures—and there simply aren't enough staff members on hand to protect these resources, let alone study and interpret them for visitors. Some 43 million of the National Park Service's (NPS's) 80 million museum artifacts have yet to be catalogued, the report states, while another 28 million objects are at risk of being damaged or lost.

NPCA's grim assessment comes as no surprise to archaeologists who are working in parks known for their cultural resources.

For instance, at Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico, which is a park solely because of its remarkable Native American architecture, the "existing staff numbers are far too small to adequately document and preserve the archaeological sites, and to fully educate the public," says Stephen Plog, an archaeologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, who has studied the Chaco Culture. While Plog praises the staff for their dedication, they are simply "understaffed," and lack any budget for serious research. "Thirty years ago, the National Park Service was at the forefront of research on the cultural history—American, French, Spanish, and Native American—of our country," Plog wrote to Science in an e-mail message. "Today, however, the staffs are so small and their resources are so limited that research is far too infrequent and depends to a large extent on outside scholars with an interest in the park. In some parks, research is virtually nonexistent."

Other archaeologists have seen similar problems at other parks. The Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, created in 2001, protects more than 1 million acres and thousands of archaeological sites, including many unexcavated Native American sites, some dating to 2000 B.P., and historic ranches, in northwestern Arizona. "They need more protection," says Karen Harry, an archaeologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who notes that less than 15% of the monument's lands have even been surveyed. "That's a lot of land," she says, adding that since there is only one full-time archaeologist on the park's staff, the park is "doing the best it can."

Harry, Plog, and other archaeologists and anthropologists are equally concerned about the parks' museums and repositories for preserving and displaying artifacts. "Archived field records and artifact collections are under-maintained and as a result in some cases are inaccessible to professional scientists," says Vance Holliday, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona, Tucson. "The collections at some parks are just so underfunded," adds Harry, "and the people handling them in some cases are not trained. I've been to repositories where the staff doesn't even know what they have. It's because they're underfunded."

None of these concerns—or those raised in the NPCA's report—come as a surprise to NPS. "We appreciate the association's work," says David Barna, chief spokesperson for the NPS in Washington, D.C., who notes that NPCA and NPS work together on park issues and concerns. "It confirms what our [staff] scientists have been saying for some time, and problems that visitors to the parks have also noticed." Indeed, NPCA used data provided by NPS to reach many of its conclusions, says Barna. Funds from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act have helped the service "address many of our maintenance problems," he adds. And with the service's centennial happening in 2016, NPS is working on a "plan of action" to improve the parks for the big celebration, as well as to address long-term concerns, including cultural resource management, invasive species, and climate change.