Science in the Wild: The Legacy Of the U.S. National Park System

As the National Park Service marks its centennial this month, the parks are being celebrated for their natural beauty and priceless recreational opportunities. But they also provide a less recognized benefit: the parks serve as a living laboratory for critical scientific research.

Saint Mary Lake in Glacier National Park, Montana. DAVE SIZER/FLICKR

In a small cabin that serves as the Glacier National Park climate change office, Dan Fagre clicks through photos that clearly show the massive glaciers that give this park its name are in a hasty retreat. “There was a hundred square kilometers of ice in 1850,” Fagre, a United States Geological Survey researcher who has studied the glaciers of Glacier since 1991, explains. “We are down to 14 to 15 square kilometers, so an 85 to 86 percent loss of ice in the park. There’s no doubt they are going to disappear unless some massive cooling happens,” he says, which isn’t likely.

The flows of mountain streams and rivers throughout the park will dwindle as their sources melt. And one species that will dearly miss the ice-cold runoff from the glaciers is the meltwater stonefly, an insect that’s only found in a few glacier-fed streams in the park. It will likely disappear when the glaciers vanish, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says.

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.

The parks are playing a key role in research to determine how climate change will impact protected ecosystems.

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.

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

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.

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.

A hunted wolf, says National Park Service wolf biologist Doug Smith, is a very different animal than a protected Yellowstone wolf. Shooting wolves is “scrambling your omelet constantly,” he said. “By killing wolves you are rearranging packs and their social structure on a routine basis.”

That is no small matter. Outside the park, some 90 percent of wolves are shot and trapped.

Among the lessons learned on the protected landscape of Yellowstone, is that wolf packs can persist for twenty years or more in the wild, that older males are essential to packs for their wise ways, especially in battles against other packs, and that for some reason, wolves with black coats have a stronger immune system than those with gray coats. Other researchers in Yellowstone have documented the wolf-caused trophic cascade — the major downstream impact of wolves on elk populations and behavior and how that has altered everything from aspen and willow growth to the numbers of beaver.

The 1963 Leopold Report found wilderness parks were best managed as a “vignette of primitive America.”

Yellowstone has also given us much of the recent science of fire behavior on large wild landscapes. After the historic blazes of 1988 swept through Yellowstone and burned nearly 800,000 acres (more than a third of the park), and the ashes cooled, scientists began to decipher what had occurred. Dozens of experiments were undertaken to study everything from the explosion of biodiversity after a fire to how quickly forests recover. And because this work was done in what is arguably the most iconic of U.S. parks, the results have been thoroughly covered by the media and exposed to a vast audience than usually hears little about fire science.

The fundamental wildfire lesson was that, as Yellowstone Superintendent Bob Barbee put it to me at the time, “Nature does not destroy herself.” Fires in fire-dependent western ecosystems are as essential as rain and sun for healthy forests and are how the landscape is renewed.

Yellowstone is also where nature broke out of its box. In the early 1960s, Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall charged a committee to come up with a plan to better manage the large wild national parks. It resulted in the 1963 Leopold Report — named after Starker Leopold, the biologist son of famed naturalist Aldo — which concluded that the wilderness parks were best managed ecologically as a “vignette of primitive America.”

It was the beginning of what is now called “natural regulation.” That means that understanding ecological principles and allowing them to operate should guide the management of parks. After two attacks on campers in Glacier in 1967, for example, both Yellowstone and Glacier ended the feeding of bears in garbage dumps and elsewhere, enabling the animals to become re-acclimated to the wild. Biologists, based on research in those parks, have since established procedures for keeping bears wild and away from people, for the sake of both species. It’s a model that has been adopted all over the world.

But the greatest ecological lesson of Yellowstone science is that the park, as big as it is at 2.2 million acres — the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined — is not nearly large enough to sustain many of the species that live there, from elk to grizzly bears to antelope and a wide spectrum of migratory birds. The park itself is just the core of the apple. What’s important, scientists now realize, is not just acres of ground, but natural systems. The wide-ranging grizzlies, for example, need the summer swarms of ladybugs and the fall crop of white bark pine nuts high in the park, as well as the succulents that grow along low-lying rivers well outside the park in the spring.

The high profile of parks and the role they play in educating the public about key scientific issues is not to be underestimated, experts say.

A volunteer collects wetland plants for study in Rocky Mountain National Park. NATIONAL PARK SERVICE

“We’ve had an impact on people’s view of climate change with these photographs of melting glaciers,” the USGS’s Fagre told me. “It really resonates more with people because of the emotional content of Glacier’s name.”

Citizen science, the involvement of volunteers in collecting data, is also a growing part of the National Park Service’s efforts. In one nationwide project, hundreds of school kids captured dragonfly larvae in 40 national parks to test them for mercury and see if the levels posed a risk to humans. Because parks are relatively pristine, they provide a strong signal of how much and how far airborne mercury has spread around the country.

Much of the park service’s scientific mission is, unfortunately, chronicling the demise of some of the treasures the parks were set aside to protect. That’s particularly true around Yellowstone, where — because of increasing development, visitation, and recreation — the ecosystem continues to be fragmented.

And then there are the impacts of climate change. Forests throughout the National Park system are dying, from the whitebark pine of Yellowstone, to the bristlecone pines of Great Basin in Nevada, to the Joshua trees of Joshua Tree in California.

Scientists working in parks are conducting “future vulnerability assessments” on how climate-related changes will impact wildlife — from desert bighorns to salamanders — as well as forests, wildfire behavior and other natural phenomena. These assessments are expected to lead to adaptive measures. “We might start irrigating the sequoias,” said Nathan Stephenson, a USGS ecologist at Sequoia National Park who is in charge of charting a future for the massive trees. “Or we might build a giant fuel break around the great sequoias so if a fire came toward the grove we could defend it.” The National Park Service hopes to pioneer these measures, which can then be used elsewhere.

The parks are widely seen as among the most important modern-day biological arks in the U.S. — not only for the species that live there, but for species that might someday have no other place to go. American pikas, for example, a relative of the rabbit that lives in boulder fields high in the mountains, are disappearing in some of their lower-elevation redoubts in and out of the parks. Among the possible pika refuges being studied are the higher and colder peaks of mountains in Olympic, Rocky Mountain, and Mount Rainer national parks. Scientists are also looking at how protected migration corridors can be created between parks and other federal land as species move in response to warming.

There are no plans, though, to protect the dwindling glaciers of Glacier, by covering them with blankets say, as has been done in Europe. “It’s too expensive,” Fagre says. Instead, he and others he will simply monitor and measure the glaciers as they most certainly vanish over the next few decades. “They are probably already doomed,” he said.