The NPCA releases “The State of America’s National Parks”

Earlier this week the National Park Conservation Association (NPCA) released a report outlining their findings from a 10 year study on the state of national park service lands in the United States.  In 2000, the NCPA’s Center for Park Research started examining the conditions of both natural and culture resources in 80 of the 394 “parks” in the NPS system.  I put parks in quotations because the NCPA did not just examine national parks (which have the highest level of protection in the National Park Service system) but also looked at the conditions in national historic sites, national battlefields, and even parts of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. The study looked at not only large, highly visited parks such as Rocky Mountain National Park, Zion, and Shenandoah but also smaller, less visited parks like Capital Reef and Isle Royale.

The part of the study examining natural resources was conducted by using NPCA created evaluations, NPS databases, reports and studies from NPS or provided to NPS by outside researchers, interviews with park staff, and on-site park visits. Specifically, the Center for Park Research examined the extent and function of park ecosystems, the composition and condition of native flora and fauna, the factors that are influencing native flora and fauna populations, and environmental factors (such as water and air quality). The parks were then given a rating based on the condition of their natural resources: critical, poor, fair, good, or excellent. When examining cultural resources, the NPCA used park guidelines which examine the condition of resources, historical collections, ethnography, historical structures, and historical research.  The same rating system was used for the cultural resources.

Overall the NCPA had five main findings:

1) In order to effectively preserve nature and cultural resources, the NPS needs to create new units and expand it’s current units.

2) The NPS is seriously underfunded and particularly needs funding for personnel, research and monitoring efforts.

3) The NPS should focus more on landscape-level conservation efforts

4) Outside influences and changes to the surrounding landscape  (such as air pollution, invasive species, and changes in water flow) need to be better addressed to help mitigate the influence of climate change.

5) Cultural resources need to be given the same attention received by natural resources

Each of these findings is outlined in detail in the 68 page report (which, by the way, is filled with lovely pictures from various parks and NPS units). However, instead of summarizing the points, I want to hit on a few topics that I found most interesting. Specifically, the landscape-level view of conservation, the emphasis on cultural resources, and the solutions the NCPA puts forth.

Landscape-level conservation:

In 2009, a collared wolverine decided to leave it’s home in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming and, by connecting a series of protected areas, found itself 500 miles from home in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.  This case study opened the chapter in the NPCA report on landscape conservation and provides support for their argument that the NPS should expand it’s land and connect various park units in order to better preserve ecoststems.  Expanding lands can reduce fragmentation, provide better corridors for wildlife, and possibly prevent surrounding lands from being used for development. The NPCA has picked up on a trend in conservation biology and ecology to examine resource issues from a landscape level instead of just focusing on individual park units (or areas within a single unit). The field of recreation ecology has also emphasized the importance of landscape level problems and studies, however operationalizing landscape level efforts in parks is often limited by funding.

The NPCA report also emphasizes that park boundaries are just lines on a map.  The activities that occur on a landscape scale outside of those lines can greatly influence the function of ecosystems within national park lands.  Additionally, historical use of the park service land, such as fire suppression, flood control, and logging has lasting effects on the landscape that still need to be managed for currently. Currently parks are also threatened by oil and gas extraction both outside it’s boundaries and within. Parks have begun to address some outside influences through their soundscape studies and their emphasis on preserving the night sky.

Rocky Mountain National Park and surrounding community from Twin Sisters

Cultural Resources:

When most people think of a National Park they think of mountains, rivers, beautiful vistas, and wildlife. However, many of the NPS service units were established to protect important cultural resources (such as Mesa Verde National Park, Gettysburg National Military Park, and Independence National Historic Park).  However, the park service units that were established to protect cultural resources are not the only units which contain cultural resources. For example, Joshua Tree National Park was historically used for mining, cattle ranching, and homesteading. Many homesteading structures remain in Joshua Tree and Arches National Park contains many examples of petroglyphs. The NPCA found that parks which were established for the protection of cultural resources are doing a decent job of stewardship of cultural resources. However, most of the park service units examined in the study focus so much on the protection of natural resources that the cultural resources are in jeopardy.

The NPCA compared the NPS to the closest thing that the United States has to a heritage ministry and feels that the protection of cultural resources should be given equal weight to natural resources. The study found that most cultural resources are maintained at a level below the established park standard. The main issue (and this seems to be a trend throughout the study) is a lack of funding and thus lack of specialized staff to maintain the cultural resources.  The NPCA suggests that with additional funding the NPS could establish a monitoring and inventory program similar to the program that they currently have for natural resources.  Additionally, more visitors need to understand the importance of cultural resources and therefore the park service needs interpretation staff that are knowledgable about cultural resources.

Petroglyphs at Arches National Park

Solutions:

At the end of the report, the NPCA outlined various case study examples where park service units were doing a good job at protecting their resources and made suggestions for how the NPS could remedy the shortcomings outlined in their findings. First and foremost, the NPS needs more money.  Money is the only way that they can hire the best staff, maintain that staff, and allow those staff members to do their jobs effectively.  Basically, this suggestion was a plea to Congress to increase the NPS budget.  Based on the current state of economy, I do not see this occurring in the immediate future.

Park stewardship needs to extend beyond the map boundaries in a couple of different ways. First, park staff needs to understand the importance of surrounding lands and communities.  What happens on surrounding lands has a huge impact on park health. Park officials should reach out to surrounding communities. Additionally, looking regionally, parks should establish teams of regional specialists to help with research needs in the area. For example, parks in Southern Utah could establish a local team of experts on invasive species to assist with their research and monitoring needs.

Finally, and this is – selfishly – probably my favorite suggestion, the NPS needs to broaden it’s research. Again this can only be done with additional funding, but research should include studies focused on both cultural and natural resources.  Also, the research findings should be communicated to the public through interpretation.  Finally, the park already has an established Inventory and Monitoring research program in place but the NPCA suggests establishing additional, similar programs.

My field tech, Annie, conducting research in Rocky Mountain National Park

Overall, I think that the NPCA hit on many of the main issues facing the NPS today – especially how their activities are grossly limited by their funding.   I am not sure if the NPCA is informing the park service with any information that, on some level, it does not already know. However, by summarizing the information and rating individual parks – the NPCA is providing useful information to the NPS.  More importantly, the report is easy to read and not overly technical and thus may also inform the general public of some of the threats to the public lands in the National Park system.

Link to National Park Conservation Association Report, “The State of America’s National Parks”: http://www.npca.org/cpr/sanp/

The above link also provides access to the executive summary, fact sheets, and a slideshow of photos from the report.

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