Our national parks need room to breathe

  • Daniel Botkin

 

In just three short years, the National Park Service will celebrate its 100th birthday. In anticipation, on Aug.25 of last year, the agency released a report prepared by a special advisory committee on the role of science in the parks. That report called for more support of science, more scientists on park staffs and a scientific oversight committee.

We have nothing against science, but these recommendations miss an essential point. Not even science can save national parks if we neglect and lose their fundamental asset, which is open space.

Up to now, America’s sheer size and stunning scenery made it relatively easy for us to create spacious parks. The founding fathers challenged Europe’s treasured art and architecture by touting the unrivaled natural beauty of North America. In that spirit, America’s first national parks --Yosemite and Yellowstone -- were established as “monuments to a living antiquity.” Later, when other values evolved and were added to these parks, each was large enough to accommodate them.

By the 1910s, scientists recommended that the national parks serve the country’s vanishing wildlife as well as its remarkable scenery. “To the natural charm of the landscape (animals) add the witchery of movement,” wrote Joseph Grinnell and Tracy I. Storer, both zoologists with the University of California. But without generous open space -- now recognized as habitat -- no amount of science could have elevated wildlife into “an asset” of national parks.

For 50 years, Grinnell’s students -- many of them in Park Service uniform -- taught about the importance of wildlife, . Finally, in 1963, the distinguished Leopold Committee, headed by the zoologist A. Starker Leopold, completed what Grinnell had started. Beyond landscape, “the biotic associations within each park (should) be maintained, or where necessary recreated,” the committee reaffirmed. In short: “A national park should represent a vignette of primitive America.”

At the time, going back centuries to suspend natural processes may have seemed like good science. Now, we know that nothing about nature is permanent or perfectible. However, the Leopold Committee was onto something in its term, “a vignette of primitive America.” Observing changes in those vignettes and monitoring them scientifically would certainly require open space.

Today, preservation of that space remains a critical need. As climate changes occur, how can we provide habitat for endangered species and maintain migration corridors? Moreover, as the human population increases, open space outside public lands decreases. Is it good science to disrupt the open space inside our national parks for our new technologies -- cellphone towers, for example? How can the parks serve as locations for environmental research and the exploration of new genotypes while also being asked to accept new distractions purely in order to entertain visitors?

The disciplined maintenance of open space against development is still a national park’s greatest challenge. On that score, national parks have expanded to include the importance of many other “vignettes,” including those of our national history. Among our 398 national park areas, there are 25 battlefields (nine known as military parks), 46 historical parks, and 78 historic sites, places that can claim neither geological monuments of wonder nor major opportunities for viewing wildlife.

In each, open space is often the critical asset. As historians note, Gettysburg National Military Park is no longer the “exact” battlefield of July 1863. The town in particular has grown, and preserving the open space surrounding it remains the key to preserving the park today. Without that first bout of discipline, as it were, no amount of current efforts to restore the battlefield to its approximate appearance 150 years ago would matter. The entire “vignette” would be gone.

Vision seldom arises from any committee; it is rather serendipitous and comes from the heart. This underscores why the national park idea has a heart so bold and true, and why 187 countries around the world have followed our brand of heartfelt “discipline.” Science is important and instructs us about what we should and should not do to the land. Our gift to the world, however, is open space, as defined by space itself. If we lose that, we lose everything grand about the national parks, no matter how many new scientists we hire.

The authors are contributors to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News(hcn.org). A lifelong naturalist, Daniel Botkin’s latest book is The Moon in the Nautilus Shell: Discordant Harmonies Reconsidered. Alfred Runte, an environmental historian, is the author of National Parks: The American Experience.

High Country News Classifieds
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • VERDE RIVER PROJECTS TECHNICIAN
    The Verde River Projects Technician (VRPT) provides technical assistance to Verde River Program staff in implementation of the Verde River Streamflow Monitoring Protocol. This consist...
  • 8 FIELD PROJECT SPECIALISTS (POSITION FORMERLY TITLED TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISOR)
    Are you passionate about environmental conservation and connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with outdoor leadership...
  • SOUTHWEST REWILDING ADVOCATE
    WildEarth Guardians is seeking a full-time advocate in our Wild Places Program to advance a new paradigm of forest management and protection based on the...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
  • CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here: https://www.marcumllp.com/executive-search/chief-operations-officer-rcac
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org