The Legacy of U.S. National Park System


Saint Mary Lake in Glacier National Park, Montana. All images from: Yale News

Thanks to Yale News for a wonderful commemoration to the history and value to the scientific community of the U.S. National Park system – visit our National Parks category page for over a hundred posts on the subject – as we celebrate its centennial today (US time, it’s still August 25th):

As the United States marks the centennial of the National Park Service, which was officially established 100 years ago this week, the nation’s parks are being widely celebrated for their natural grandeur and vistas, their wildlife, and their abundant recreational opportunities.

Far less appreciated though is the critical role that the U.S.’s 59 national parks and hundreds of other park service units play in scientific research, providing unspoiled, protected, and accessible landscapes that host research that can be done few other places. In fact, with a long history of data and field study on everything from wildlife to wildfires, the national parks offer scientists an incredibly rare living outdoor lab. And the high profile of the parks in the American imagination often provides an avenue for conveying that research to the public.

Science and scientific education have long been a key part of the National Park Service’s mission. Research in the parks has blossomed to the point where there currently are scientists working in about 289 of the 412 national park units (which include national monuments and historic sites), conducting some 4,000 experiments. Since 2000, there have been 28,000 studies. The work falls into two main categories — research done to aid park management, and more general research on issues that range from climate change to ecological restoration, and even on new products such as medicines or industrial materials, and technologies.

“Our lands are the least impacted in U.S.,” says Kirsten Gallo, chief of the park service’s National Inventory and Monitoring Division, the agency that oversees park research. There is a lot of research seeking to understand the “reference” conditions in national parks, she says, which serves as a baseline indicating the original natural variability of ecosystems and providing a guide for ecological restoration elsewhere.

These days, climate change, which President Obama has called the greatest threat to the nation’s parks, is one of the park service’s most important science missions. The parks currently are playing a key role both in global climate research and in efforts to determine how climate change will impact protected ecosystems — from the glaciers of Glacier National Park in Montana, to the giant forests of Sequoia National Park in California, to the East Coast beaches of Assateague Island National Seashore — and in finding possible ways to adapt.

Patrick Gonzalez, principal climate change scientist for the National Park Service, says the intact natural landscapes of parks provides climate researchers with a picture of how natural ecosystems, free from most kinds of human influence, are responding to warming.

One important study, part of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s research, focuses on biome shifts, which are major vegetation formations that are on the move — north, south, or up slope — to stay within their preferred temperature range. They are key indicators of a warming planet.

“Research in Yosemite has documented a shift of sub-alpine forest into sub-alpine meadows,” Gonzalez said. “Research in Alaska has found a northward shift of boreal forest onto tundra. Both have been attributed to human climate change and not other factors because they have happened in national parks that have not been affected by grazing, logging, and other local human disturbances.”

A century ago, when the National Park Service was established, University of California at Berkeley biologist Joseph Grinnell advocated study of the parks to better manage them. Without scientific investigation of the animal life in the parks, “no thorough understanding of the conditions of the practical problems they involve is possible,” he and biologist Tracy Storer wrote in the journal Science in 1916.

Grinnell and Storer also predicted that development across the country would someday render the parks “the only areas remaining unspoiled for scientific study.”

Yellowstone, the country’s first national park, has one of the most robust scientific programs of any national park, largely because of its size, intactness, and unusual natural features. The research mission there is shared by a staff of scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), which does much of the research in national parks, and outside researchers from universities and other institutions. Yellowstone was important to researchers even before it was a park. One of the first major scientific expeditions was by USGS geologist Ferdinand Hayden in 1871, a year before Yellowstone National Park was created by President Ulysses S. Grant.


Scientists capture moving images of algae living in the thermal waters of Yellowstone National Park in 1923.

A key area of focus for today’s research in Yellowstone is the hunt for the unusual microbial life — microbes called extremophiles — that inhabits the extreme conditions of the hot springs. The major discovery in these steaming waters in the 1960s was a species of bacteria called Thermus aquaticus, or Taq. An enzyme later isolated in Taq revolutionized DNA fingerprinting by allowing inexpensive and rapid amplification of DNA.

Yellowstone has about two-thirds of the world’s geothermal features, and few are as pristine as those found in the park. “It’s important that it’s protected because you don’t have people swimming in it — that has value to science,” said Brent Peyton, director of the Thermal Biology Institute at Montana State University.

One of the most unique wildlife research projects ever conducted has been the return of wolves to the elk-rich landscape in Yellowstone. Once regarded as a menace, wolves were hunted to extirpation in the Northern Rockies in the mid 20th century, but were reintroduced by federal biologists in 1994. Since then, careful study of the wolf packs (now numbering 12) on Yellowstone’s wild landscape has given researchers a deep look at what happens to an ecosystem when an apex predator returns. It has also provided a rare look at what takes place in packs as they re-establish and evolve on a landscape where human influence, especially hunting, is virtually absent.

Read the full article here.

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