Can the National Park Service Afford to React to Climate Change?

Delicate Arch, Arches National Park. Photo: Ryan Dearth

Last year, as part of his Call to Action plan to revise and improve the way our national parks are managed, National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis asked a committee of scientists and advisers to the NPS to revisit and rewrite a 1963 report called "Wildlife Management in the National Parks."

Though the 1963 report, penned by the son of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, was groundbreaking as a contribution to wildlife management practices, it was written well before the park system had to address and adopt to climate change, and well before the system gained most of the cultural artifacts and memorials it now holds. Therefore, the report needed a major makeover.

The revised report, written with the help of an 11-member committee that includes a Nobel Laureate and two Presidential Medal of Science recipients, was released on Friday and includes broad recommendations on how the NPS should go about protecting park ecosystems and the cultural treasures they contain. Also published last week was a Washington Post news story entitled “National Parks Face Severe Funding Crunch,” in which Juliet Eilperin described the impact that fiscal belt-tightening has had on the park service in recent years and how the proposed 2013 budget would only worsen the park’s economic health. Some say more cuts will precipitate park closures.

I asked Gary Machlis, Jarvis' science adviser, who acted as a liaison between the committee and the NPS, how the new report, "Revisiting Leopold: Resource Stewardship in the National Parks," gets square with the park’s economic landscape. How can the park service react to things such as rising sea levels and unhealthy forests if its funding is dwindling?

“In the recommendations they focus both on what is visionary and what is practical,” Machlis says. “They see that these are not costs; they are investments. So the question becomes not what does it cost, but what is the return on investment in doing so?”

Fine, but it all still falls to the bottom line. The committee wasn’t tasked with balancing the books, so unsurprisingly the report is short on specifics when it comes to deploying its resource management recommendations. Still, it does at least acknowledge the current (and likely, future) economic constraints and urges the NPS to use its resources wisely.

“The committee said that park service needs cohesive and coherent technology innovation policy so that available technology that’s already on shelf, that is at the cutting edge, could be employed without huge expense,” says Machlis. “This can mean using better batteries, better fuel cells, so it’s not particularly expensive, especially when you consider this as a way to augment existing staff. A good [remote sensing] monitoring system is like adding hundreds of eyes, ears, noses, to figure out what is going on in parks.”

Another way to improve resource management on the cheap is to enlist the help of citizen scientists, especially young ones, who the park might also be able to groom into future rangers, says Machlis.

The report also urges the NPS to be nimble and avoid “unnecessary bureaucracy.” It suggests that NPS should look beyond its boundaries for other agencies, academic institutions and individuals that are willing to act as advisers and park stewards.

Making policy decisions based on the best available science is a key tenant of the committee’s recommendations and it’s one of the reasons Jim Nations, vice president of the Center for the State of the Parks, part of the National Parks Conservation Association, calls the "Revisiting Leopold" report “brilliant.”

It’s exactly the set of recommendations the park service needs,” he says. He hails the committee’s urging that the NPS create a science advisory board that will provide “advice and guidance on science policy, priorities and controversies, and advocate on behalf of science within the agency.”  

As for the art and science of federal budgets, Nations stressed what is at stake if the NPS continues to be underfunded. “These are the people we’ve asked to take care of our most valuable ecosystems, the lifeboats for our species and the landscapes of our cultural heritage,” he says. “If we are going to ask them to do that, we need to give them the funds they need.”

Indeed, the stakes seem higher than they were back in 1963. The borders of our national parks cannot preserve the lands they circle. “Within many units of the National Park System we're already seeing the effects of climate change,” Jarvis told Outside earlier this year.

“Environmental changes confronting the National Park System are widespread, complex, accelerating and volatile,” according to the opening pages of the new report. “These include biodiversity loss, climate change, habitat fragmentation, land use change, groundwater removal, invasive species, over development and air, noise and light pollution.” Yikes.

But Machlis tries to put the struggles in perspective: “When the original report was written in 1963, they said ‘this will not be easy, but we have to do it.’ It’s the same this time.”

—Mary Catherine O'Connor

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