National Parks Act as Living Laboratories

Why science matters to National Parks and how National Parks help science

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A couple strolls on Baker Beach, part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, near San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge with its harp-like suspension cables.


The national parks weren’t established with science in mind. When the National Park Service was founded in 1916, it was charged with the mission to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife … in such a way as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

But some scientists—notably Berkeley biologists Joseph Grinnell and Tracy Storer—realized early on that preserving the parks “unimpaired” required understanding them. “Without a scientific investigation,” they wrote in an article in Science in 1916, “no thorough understanding of the conditions or of the practical problems they involve is possible.”

It took decades for the NPS to catch up to their insight, and today the parks—in addition to their natural beauty—are living laboratories that allow scientists to study, address, and plan for a litany of environmental issues like climate change, urban encroachment, invasive species, and disappearing species.

This week, more than 500 scientists, park service employees, and conservationists, including Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and biologist E. O. Wilson, gathered on the Berkeley campus of the University of California on the anniversary of the founding of the NPS to “refocus attention on the role science can play in our parks,” according to Steven Beissinger, a biologist and one of the event’s organizers. The meeting, called Science for Parks, Parks for Science, was held in partnership with the NPS and the National Geographic Society.

“We need science more than we ever have because things are changing faster than they ever have,” said Secretary of the Interior Jewell.

A Ready-Made Laboratory

In 1916, Grinnell and Storer predicted that with the headlong pace of development in the United States, national parks “would probably be the only areas remaining unspoiled for scientific study.”

One hundred years later, E. O. Wilson agreed. “These parks are our ready-made laboratories,” he emphasized in his keynote address. Yet only three national parks worldwide have had complete censuses done of what he calls “their living environments”: the Great Smoky Mountains, Boston Harbor, and Gorongosa in Mozambique.

Even so, scientists are taking advantage of these natural labs. The devastating Yellowstone fires in 1988 are a perfect example. “The size and the severity of the fires took scientists and park managers by surprise,” said Monica Turner, a professor of ecology at the University of Madison-Wisconsin. But because the forest hadn’t been managed, “it gave scientists an unprecedented opportunity to understand” how massive fires naturally develop—in this case, through severe drought and high winds—and how forests recover.

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A bison rests on the main highway next to the charred remains of the fires that consumed an 11.7-million-acre area of Yellowstone National Park during the long, hot summer of 1988.


While research by Turner and colleagues helped scientists understand a past event, it will also help Yellowstone’s managers to plan for the future as climate change makes the conditions that prevailed in 1988 more common in the park and elsewhere.

The NPS can’t do scientific research on its own. It must depend on outside resources. It “will never have the entire science capacity that’s necessary to address the problems that it has,” said Raymond Sauvajot, associate director for natural resource stewardship and science at the NPS.

“We’re working with universities, local researchers, and state wildlife people,” said Jewell, “pooling their science, pooling their knowledge to achieve a common outcome. This will be more common than in the past, when people operated in silos.”

National parks have never been more popular. Last year, according to NPS director Jonathan Jarvis, 292 million people visited the national parks, 30 million more than the combined total of all those who visited Disney amusement parks or attended basketball, baseball, football, and hockey games or NASCAR races.

There’s a price to pay for popularity. On Monday, the National Park Service reported that the cost of deferred maintenance to park infrastructure reached $11.49 billion in fiscal year 2014. Many park service scientists work in the limbo of temporary appointments because the NPS can’t afford to hire them permanently.

“When people visit national parks,” says Sauvajot, “they don’t realize that for those experiences to continue requires science and scientific research.”

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