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.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATER POLICY ANALYST WITH WRA (BOULDER)
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates seeks a passionate Water Policy Analyst with knowledge of western water issues to join our Healthy Rivers Team to strengthen...
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.
  • ROADS END CABIN NEAR YELLOWSTONE
    Vaulted ceilings, two fireplaces, two bedrooms, loft, jetted tub, wifi. Forest, mountain views. Wildlife. [email protected]
  • ACCOUNTING CLERK
    Our director is seeking to employ the services of an Accounting Clerk to assist with various accounting and administrative tasks. This is a great opportunity...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, COMMUNITY RADIO PROJECT
    Community Radio Project, Cortez, CO (KSJD & the Sunflower Theatre). Visit ksjd.org and click on the Executive Director search link. CRP is an EOE.