Science Policy & Funding News

U.S. Parks to Make Adaptation to "Continuous Change" a Top Goal

The U.S. National Park Service science adviser calls climate change an "overarching" challenge facing the national parks.


With the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) turning 100 years old on 25 August, Eos recently spoke with Gary Machlis, science adviser to NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis, about science and the national parks, climate change and other challenges facing the park system, and the Park Service’s plans for resource stewardship. The park system comprises 412 areas, including national parks, monuments, historical parks, historic sites, seashores, recreation areas, and scenic rivers and trails.

Machlis, who is the first person to serve as science adviser to an NPS director, said that the Park Service plans to finalize on 15 December a new director’s order (#100) that will update resource management and stewardship guiding principles and policies in the park system. This order incorporates an overarching goal from a 9 June NPS policy memorandum “to steward NPS resources for continuous change that is not yet fully understood.” The memorandum recognizes that climate change creates “dynamic environmental shifts that impact both natural and cultural resources.”

The memorandum grew out of a 2012 report by the National Park System Advisory Board Science Committee. It updates a 1963 guiding document on resource management that said the goal of managing national parks and monuments “should be to preserve, or where necessary to recreate, the ecologic scene as viewed by the first European visitors.”

Gary Machlis, science adviser to NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis. Credit: NPS

Machlis, who holds a Ph.D. in human ecology and is University Professor of Environmental Sustainability at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., told Eos, “Now we must manage [parks] for what we know to be true: that they are not snapshots, they are films. I believe this new policy will lead to a new chapter [of] science in the national parks.”

The 9 June memorandum, which provides interim guidance to NPS during the development of the director’s order, also calls for basing NPS resource stewardship decision making on “the best available sound science and scholarship, accurate fidelity to the law, and long-term public interest.”

Eos: Why is science important to the national parks and the Park Service?

Machlis: Science is important for the national parks in two ways in my opinion, and they have to do with the guiding strategy of ours: parks for science and science for parks. Parks for science means these are important scientific assets, whether they are used to benchmark … climate change [or] to discover, for example, bacteria cultures that could be used from the hot pools of Yellowstone to speed up and make [genetics advances] possible. … [For] all of that, the parks are an important national laboratory for science.

On the other hand, we need science to make good decisions on very complex problems, [such as] how to address siltation and sedimentation in the Colorado River and its effects on the hydrology and water regime of [the river’s] canyon. … There is a whole realm of science that informs parks. That’s why our approach has to be both parks for science and science for parks. They are not separate. Often, science for parks—the operational applied science we do for parks—discovers and contributes to new science. Often, new science and new scientific methods, such as remote monitoring, become critical tools for the operational science we are doing.

Eos: What are some of the major challenges facing national parks right now?

Machlis: One of the overarching ones is climate change. … Every young person [who] joins the Park Service now [for] their entire careers will grapple with climate change because [it] is a fundamental transformation of very complex and sophisticated ecological systems. We don’t know the full extent of this, and it will take a generation to try to figure that out. We already see parks in continuous change. We see the effects of climate change in parks from coastal parks and sea level rise to parks [with] glacier retreat. And [climate change’s] impact on plants, animals, people is significant and ongoing. … In some ways, climate change is a foundational challenge because it accelerates so many others. Examples would be biodiversity loss, habitat fragmentation, pollution, encroachment, [and] overdevelopment.

Eos: What are the biggest opportunities you see for science and the national parks?

Machlis: The biggest opportunity I see is a generation of incredibly smart young scientists who are creative, brilliant, well equipped with contemporary theory and with new forms of research, data collection, etc., who have broken down all kinds of barriers, who trust interdisciplinary research, who are open and curious, and who have a great love of science. …

Hydrologic Technician Emily Clark takes monthly spring discharge measurements at Vendome Well to determine the rate of flow.
The National Park Service (NPS) stresses parks for science and science for parks, according to Gary Machlis, science adviser to the NPS director. Pictured, NPS hydrologic technician Emily Clark takes monthly measurements to determine the rate of flow at Vendome Well in the Chickasaw National Recreation Area, Okla. Credit: Steve Burrough, NPS

Another opportunity is the value of parks for science and science for parks as a guiding strategy. The more we do that, the more parks are seen not just as [places] that need science to operate but that also provide the scientific community with opportunities to advance basic knowledge. That’s an exciting opportunity. Who knows what will come from that, what discoveries will occur? Linking parks for science and science for parks I think has all kinds of future benefits.

Eos: What is the future of citizen science in the parks?

Machlis: There are now small affordable sensors that individuals can wear on their wrists that record atmospheric chemistry at levels of accuracy and data frequency to be useful to science. They are already being used by Chinese citizens to measure air quality in China’s urban cores and to create independent data sets, independent of government.

Citizens can become more than just data collectors. Look at the popularity of the Audubon bird count. That’s citizens trying to contribute to our body of knowledge. Add to that that [for] the generations after World War II … we have an educated citizenry about science at levels we’ve never had before. All of that bodes well, actually is hopeful, in terms of the public broadly engaging in science and for those that don’t have it, rediscovering the public virtue of science.

Eos: What is the significance of the Park Service centennial?

Machlis: The centennial is important because it is an achievement of the American people. It’s not 100 years of a bureaucracy [or] 100 years of a government. It’s that the American people created this extraordinary system of national parks. … If we celebrate the achievement of the American people in the centennial and we keep our eyes focused on advancing science for parks and parks for science, I think that [next] chapter in the history of science in the parks will get written and it will be very, very good.

—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2016), U.S. parks to make adaptation to “continuous change” a top goal, Eos, 97, Published on 18 August 2016.
Text © 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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