Ecological Threats to the Parks

Table of Contents


Elk were nearly extinct in 1920, but by the 1950s they threatened to overrun Yellowstone Park. To protect vegetation and habitat for other wildlife, the Park Service began a program of shooting surplus elk. But animal lovers and hunters soon protested the program: animal lovers because they didn't want the elk shot; hunters because, if the elk were to be shot, they wanted to shoot them. When Congressional committees began to hold hearings on the subject, the Park Service quickly adopted a new policy: Let nature regulate elk numbers. As a result of this policy, overgrazing by elk, deer, and other ungulates is turning Yellowstone and other parks into biological deserts.

In the 1970s, Sequoia Park scientists decided that sixty years of fire suppression had created dangerous conditions for the giant sequoia in their park. Although sequoia trees have bark that is naturally fire resistant, the accumulated fuels could produce fires so hot that it would burn through the bark, killing the trees. So the park began a careful program of prescribed fires that was highly successful. But Congressional criticism over the 1988 Yellowstone fires chilled the Park Service's prescribed burning programs, and today few parks are willing to risk prescribed fires.

In the 1980s, Yellowstone decided that a popular resort area known as Fishing Bridge was prime grizzly bear habitat and critical to bear recovery. But when it tried to close the resort, the Wyoming Congressional delegation intervened. Fishing Bridge was vital, the delegation said, to the economy of Cody, Wyoming. The Park Service proposed to build a substitute resort on habitat not so critical to the bear. Congress funded the new resort, but when it was done and the park again proposed to close Fishing Bridge, the delegation again intervened. Fishing Bridge remains open for business to this day.

These examples all show that managing park ecosystems is a difficult task. On the face of it, the law is clear: The Park Service must protect park ecosystems. As President Bush's Interior Secretary, Manuel Lujan, said, "The mission of the Park Service is first to protect the resources and secondly to provide for enjoyment by the public. But when push comes to shove, we've got to protect the resource." Those are noble words. But when the agent doing the pushing is Congress, the Park Service, knowing that Congress signs its paychecks, invariably gives in. Since sound ecosystem management rarely score high on the pork barrel ratings, the results are almost invariably bad for the resource.

Many organizations have cataloged the numerous threats to park ecosystems. Usually, the lists are divided into internal threats and external threats. While these listings are valid, they rarely identify the root cause of such threats: Pork barrel and other poorly designed government policies. This issue of Different Drummer will show that nearly all of the internal threats and some of the external ones are due to Congressional meddling in park management. Most of the other external threats are due to other poor government policies.

Internal Threats

With a few notable exceptions, the gravest threats to park ecosystems come from within, not beyond, their boundaries. These include imbalances in plant and wildlife populations, impacts of long-term fire suppression and increasing numbers of park visitors. Each of these factors, in turn, are attributable to the institutions and incentives that shape Park Service policy and management. One of the most important, and controversial, park policies towards ecosystems is called "natural regulation."

Natural Regulation

In 1985, Alston Chase's book, Playing God in Yellowstone, received national attention when he charged that the Park Service's natural regulation policy was devastating Yellowstone ecosystems and destroying the habitat for numerous plants and animals. To fully understand natural regulation and its implications for park ecosystems, it is necessary to go to another national park in another country: Kenya.

In 1948, the government of Kenya established the Tsavo National Park, a 3.2-million-acre wildlife preserve featuring a large elephant population. Led by warden David Sheldrick, park managers did their best to promote the elephant herd. Today, the results of their work are readily seen from the air: On one side of the park boundary, the vegetation is green and lush. On the other side, it brown and near-desert. Unfortunately, it is the park that is barren.

Within a decade of park establishment, elephants had eaten so much of the vegetation that Sheldrick's wife, Daphne, wrote that it was beginning to resemble a "lunar landscape." In the mid-1960s, an outside study concluded that at least 3,000 elephants should be shot to keep the population within the limits of its food supply. But Sheldrick decided (in Daphne's words) that "the conservation policy for Tsavo should be directed towards the attainment of a natural ecological climax, and that our participation towards this aim should be restricted to such measures as the control of fire, poaching, and other forms of human interference." Left to itself, Sheldrick hoped, nature would achieve a balance.

In 1969 and 1970, Tsavo suffered a severe drought and 6,000 elephants starved to death. Before they died, they stripped much of the remaining vegetation from the park. Since then, park vegetation has begun to recover, but it will not last long unless park managers keep elephant populations under control in the future.

Meanwhile, in Yellowstone, U.S. park managers were learning a different lesson. Rather than let elk overrun the park, as Tsavo managers were allowing elephants to do, Yellowstone was controlling populations during the 1950s and early 1960s by shooting as many as 4,300 elk per year. The meat from the elk carcasses was given to local Indian tribes. This policy was criticized by animal lovers who objected to shooting of park wildlife. But even more serious was the objections of hunters.

Elk hunting had been a sore point in Wyoming parks since the creation of Grand Teton as a monument. Hunters had formerly shot elk that migrated between Yellowstone and Jackson Hole; bringing the Tetons, including much of Jackson Hole, into the park system curtailed such hunts. Hunters were also annoyed that a selection process favored elk herds that stayed in the parks and other protected areas over herds that migrated into the path of hunters' bullets.

In 1967, Wyoming Senator Gale McGee held hearings on the controversy. To avoid a Congressional decree allowing hunting in the parks, Park Service director George Hartzog agreed to stop shooting elk. While Hartzog today says that his agreement with McGee allowed shooting as a last resort, to date no more elk have been shot by the Park Service even though elk populations have multiplied several times over. Hartzog's agreement also allowed trapping and transplanting, but the tens of thousands of elk now roaming Yellowstone are too numerous to be controlled by trapping.

Instead, the Park Service in 1968 adopted a policy it called "natural control" (later changed to natural regulation). The policy assumed that populations of elk and other animals could be controlled naturally, first by predators, second by natural limits to food supplies, and third by shooting of animals that left the park. The policy applied not only to Yellowstone, but to Rocky Mountain and other parks that had been controlling elk and other native wildlife populations. In short, just before the 1969 drought killed much of Tsavo's elephant population, proving that the "balance of nature" can be very unbalanced in isolated national parks, the Park Service was adopting policies similar to those that failed in Tsavo.

The Park Service justifies its natural regulation policy by referring to a 1963 report by the National Academy of Sciences. Popularly known as the Leopold report, for Starker Leopold who chaired the committee that wrote it, the report was commissioned by Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall to examine park wildlife management policies. The report concluded that park ecosystems should

be maintained, or where necessary recreated, as nearly as possible in the condition that prevailed when the area was first visited by the white man. A national park should represent a vignette of primitive America.
It is important to understand that the Leopold report never uses the term "natural regulation." Nor did the report criticize park programs of controlling elk populations. In fact, the main purpose of the report was to critique the development activities taking place under Mission 66, which Udall as a preservationist found offensive. The report's goal of making parks into "a vignette of primitive America" is completely in tune with the law requiring the Park Service to maintain parks "unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations" and with Lujan's injunction to place resource protection above public enjoyment.

But does "a vignette of primitive America" necessarily imply a hands-off policy like natural regulation? Consider:

With all of these changes and more, it is unlikely that natural regulation--doing nothing--would recreate parks as a vignette of primitive America. It is much more likely that a do-nothing policy would allow these other changes to favor some parts of park ecosystems over others. That is exactly what Alston Chase documented for Yellowstone and what further research has revealed for Rocky Mountain: Elk, crowded into the parks by hunting and developments outside, eat all of the park's willows and aspen, greatly altering riparian areas. With the willow, aspen, and other forage gone, species like beaver, ptarmigan, and bighorn sheep disappear. With the beaver gone, ponds and marshes silt in and dry up. With the wetlands gone, other species decline.

This hardly sounds like a portrait of primitive America. Yet this is the type of process resulting from natural regulation in Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Rocky Mountain, Glacier, Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon, Mount Rainier, Lassen, and the other great western parks.

The fundamental problem is that natural regulation is based on simplistic and flawed ideas about ecology. Dr. David Botkin, a biologist at U.C. Santa Barbara, notes that early ecological theories of population growth were based on "two formal models that were heavily influenced by [nineteenth-century] machine-age thinking." The first, known as the "logistic," says that a single population will grow until it begins to exceed its food supply. Then its growth will slow until it reaches the population's carrying capacity. Thereafter, if the population varies from that level it is quickly pushed back, leading to a "balance of nature." The second model, known as the "Lotka-Voltera equations," describes predator-prey relationships as predictable oscillations of population that also produce a balance of nature.

The problem, says Botkin, is that the logistic

relied upon assumptions that have proven to be false. The logistic assumes that all flies or elephants or mountain lions are identical, each contributing equally to reproduction, mortality, growth, and reduction in available resources. And although the logistic is supposed to be an ecological formula, it does not explicitly take account of changes in environment, such as variations in the availability of food and water.
The logistic also fails to account for interactions between two species competing for the same resources. Botkin adds that "I have searched the scientific literature for ten years and found no cases where a population outside the laboratory" followed population growth predicted by the logistic, and no case, inside or outside the laboratory, of populations following the Lotka-Voltera predictions. (The only cases inside a laboratory were for flies and bees.)

Supporters of natural regulation in the parks can still make a case for hands-off management. Environmental ethicist Holmes Rolston, responding to the title of Chase's book, says, "Playing God is hands-on management; playing God is hands-off management. . . . So what is not playing God? . . . If anything in wildlife management can be said to be divine, why not natural regulation, a restrained hand preserving nature and letting nature take its course?" This argument seems to say, "instead of doing something that may be wrong, let's do nothing even though we know that doing nothing is wrong."

To be fair, humans haven't always done a good job of figuring out what is right for the land. But let's be clear: Doing nothing is not going to turn the parks into vignettes of primitive America. At best, it will turn them into giant petting zoos featuring charismatic megafauna like elk, bison, and deer, but leaving out important (but less charismatic) components of the ecosystem like beaver, willow, and aspen. As a biologist at Rocky Mountain Park said, "More people want to see the elk than want to see the grass or willows. That's just the way it is." At worst, as it was in Tsavo, natural regulation will turn some of the parks into biological deserts.

Which raises a question: How long would natural regulation remain the dominant Park Service policy if it favored not elk but uncharismatic species such as woodrats, rattlesnakes, or black widow spiders at the expense of elk, deer, and tourists? Not long, judging from the number of grizzly bears moved or killed by Yellowstone Park for getting into garbage cans.

The natural regulation policy has no scientific basis, but it has a strong political basis. Whenever the Park Service did something to protect ecosystems--shoot excess elk; close resorts in prime wildlife habitat; start fires--it got into trouble with Congress. But it is harder for Congress to criticize the Park Service for doing nothing. If anything goes wrong, such as 10,000 elk starving to death after eating all available forage, park managers can just say, "It's not our fault; nature did it."

Wildlife Imbalances

Many parks no longer support their full contingent of native species. Parks such as Bryce Canyon, Mount Rainier, Rocky Mountain, Yosemite, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Lassen have lost one to seven major mammalian species. Wolves and grizzlies are gone from all but a handful of parks. However, species loss is not considered a major threat to most park ecosystems. Indeed, the rate of species endangerment in parks is no greater than it is on surrounding wildlands. Rather, the wildlife problems that are most severe are those associated with excess numbers of both native and exotic species.

Native Species. Ecological fragmentation, the loss of natural predators, and other human disturbances have pushed populations of large mammals--particularly ungulates--out of balance with the plant communities of many national parks. A 1986 Park Service-wide survey on wildlife problems listed the degradation of park resources due to native wildlife overpopulation as the first out of twenty-six natural resource issues. Loss of biological diversity was only seventeenth.

The ecological impacts of elk overabundance in Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain parks have already been mentioned and require no additional comment. However, it is important to note that many other parks face similar problems. Biologists in Glacier, for example, have reported elk-induced degradation of park vegetation ever since the 1940s. The park periodically attempted to reduce elk populations until the natural regulation policy was adopted in 1968. Today, vegetation damage is worse than ever.

Elk problems are even more severe in Bandelier National Monument. According to the Park Service, elk numbers there "have grown exponentially" ever since a massive fire in 1977 that created new meadows. By last winter, park officials admitted that current elk populations could leave Bandelier severely "eroded and overgrazed." Grand Canyon and Acadia parks, among others suffer from overpopulations of mule deer and white-tailed deer.

Exotic Plants. Exotic plants are considered by many park managers to pose the most intractable and long-term threats to the ecology and environment of their respective parks. In the Everglades, melaleuca has become a major exotic threat, second only to the emerging monoculture of cattails. System-wide, a array of annual and perennial deciduous plants are now displacing native species to the detriment of wildland ecology.

Wet meadows and dry grasslands throughout the National Park System are inundated with exotic pasture grasses like timothy, orchard grass, red fescue, and crested wheatgrass--grasses that were seeded decades earlier by original settlers. In addition, grasslands and savannas that were never seeded are invaded, if not inundated, by populations of Kentucky bluegrass and annual brome grasses--species which have been remarkably successful in usurping the niches of native plants.

Elimination of exotic plant species is a major priority in many parks. However, control of exotics has been compromised in parks where ungulate populations are particularly high. Being more resistant to grazing than most native grasses, exotics enjoy a competitive advantage in parks like Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain where the intensity of elk foraging is high. Ironically, natural regulation here selectively favors exotics at the expense of native grass species.

Exotic Animals. An equally serious and at times far more conspicuous threat to park ecology comes from exotic animals. In Sequoia the introduction of exotic trout into high elevation lakes that previously supported no other fish species has led to the decline of a number of frog species. Exotic insects such as the balsam wooly adelgid have played havoc with forest ecology in parks such as the Great Smoky Mountains.

Yet the exotic animals that have received the greatest attention have been large mammals. In Grand Canyon, vegetation damage caused by expanding populations of exotic burros had been ongoing for decades until effective controls were implemented in the 1970s--and then implemented only after major political skirmishes between burro advocates and resource managers. During the same period, the Death Valley burro population mushroomed. To avoid the political upheaval of the Grand Canyon experience, the superintendent waged a campaign of popular education that finally culminated in effective burro control by the early 1980s.

The Hawaii Volcanoes and Haleakala national parks removed feral goats, pigs, and rabbits as threats to the vegetation of those parks. Today, however, the political climate for controlling exotic mammals has become more complex and difficult for park managers. In the Great Smoky Mountains, for example, exotic wild boars damage major components of the park's vegetation. Removing them has proven difficult enough, but control efforts are now being frustrated by political opposition from hunters.

A similar problem prevails in Olympic Park, where mountain goats were introduced by sporting groups in the 1920s. Since then, their numbers have swollen and now present a major threat to the park's alpine vegetation and landscape. To protect vegetation, park scientists want to completely eradicate the goat from the park. Before the plan could get underway, however, angry animal rights groups and concerned hunters convinced the park that the best course of action was to do nothing. As a result, Olympic's alpine vegetation continues to degrade.

Fire Suppression

As significant as wildlife imbalances are to the ecological health of wildlands, the historic suppression of fire may well be the single-greatest internal threat facing America's major national parks. In most western parks, fire is an essential component in ecological processes and is an integral factor in maintaining biological diversity. Yet from the moment of its establishment in 1916, the Park Service followed the lead of the U.S. Forest Service in actively suppressing both natural and man-caused burns. The results of suppression have been ecologically significant.

In Rocky Mountain, three-quarters of a century of fire suppression has resulted in abnormally severe outbreaks of spruce budworm, invasion of grasslands by trees, the transformation of much of the eastern slope of the park into a lodgepole pine monoculture, and the accumulation of fire materials that threaten the park with a conflagration on the scale of Yellowstone's 1988 fires. Natural resource scientists in Glacier and Yosemite parks consider fire suppression the single greatest threat to their parks.

Scientists at Sequoia are equally concerned about fire control, not only because suppression has altered the park's vegetation, but because fire may be necessary for the survival and future propagation of giant sequoia. Even in wetter environments like the Great Smoky Mountains, scientists are concerned that human intervention has fatally altered the patterns of natural fire, threatening fundamental changes in forest composition and structure. Despite the fact that many parks are struggling to reintroduce fire to their local ecosystems, the barriers to doing so are enormous.

Since the 1988 Yellowstone fires, the political climate for tolerating natural burns has been less than friendly. In Rocky Mountain, where a new fire management policy has just been instituted, congressional delegations have already pressured the park managers to forgo controlled burns. In Grand Canyon, where fire has historically helped shape the park's mosaic of vegetation, controlled burns are fought by tourists upset with smoke trapped in canyon bottoms by prevailing high pressure systems. And in Sequoia and Yosemite parks, where fire is essential to the survival of entire ecosystems, state pollution rules severely restrict the timing and frequency of controlled burns.

Too Many People

Park Service historian William Everhart traces the phrase "loving the parks to death" way back to 1915, when a stagecoach driver complained about cars in Yosemite Park. "Where there is a problem with perceived overuse," wrote Horace Albright in the 1980s, "it almost always centers on the automobile." Indeed, the popular image of park overcrowding is of traffic congestion in Yosemite Valley, along some of Yellowstone's highways, or Great Smoky Mountain's Skyline Drive.

Although the parks host hundreds of millions of visitors each year, most of the parks are not overcrowded, and most that are overcrowded only in a few areas. What is amazing about Yellowstone, for example, is not that nearly 3 million people visit its 2.2 million acres each year, but that 99 percent of those people remain--and for the most part remain comfortably--within less than 2 percent of those acres. Where overcrowding does exist, for the most part it is an imposition on the tourists themselves more than on park ecosystems.

Still, a number of parks face serious conflicts between tourism and nature. Intensive human use of parts of Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier, and Rocky Mountain parks drives wildlife away from valleys and other areas that should be prime wildlife habitat. The large number of people visiting the south rim of the Grand Canyon use so much water that major canyon waters and associated riparian habitat and wildlife are faced with depletion.

Yet even in these cases, the root problem is not that there are too many people but that the Park Service is responding to the incentives and directives given to it by Congress. After pork barrel, visitation has always been the most important criteria used by Congress and top park officials to distribute funds among parks. This gives park managers a powerful incentive to promote overcrowding, even when such overcrowding reduces the quality of park recreation or ecosystems. Congress also frowns upon any attempts by the Park Service to reduce concession resorts, even though the basic need for such resorts--the lack of adequate transportation facilities to get to lodging outside of parks--disappeared decades ago. Finally, Congress severely restricts the fees that parks can charge, making it impossible for parks to distribute use by charging more for the more popular areas.

From its establishment in 1916, the Park Service has made high visitation a management priority. Stephen Mather, the first director of the Park Service, understood that building the Park Service required strong political support, and the only way to gain that support was by educating the public about the wonders and attractions of the parks. He sold parks to get political support, and with that political support he got appropriations for roads and facilities, and with those roads and facilities he attracted more visitors, which increased the political support--a cycle that remains unchanged to this day.

Indeed, the number of visitors--not the protection of basic resources--has become the governing rationale for national park management. Park superintendents understand, just as Mather did, that gross numbers of people govern congressional appropriations. More people means greater need for visitor centers, concessions, highways, park rangers--the very things that have become the bread and butter of the modern Park Service. All the parks play the numbers game, and do so at the expense of the very resources they are supposed to protect.

Grand Canyon's natural resource budget is a tiny fraction of the park's maintenance and visitor protection budget, and it provides virtually no funding for monitoring the resource degradation caused by tourist use of the park's scarce water supplies. Since Redwood Park was expanded in 1978, most of its budget has gone for watershed restoration activities that are expected to end soon. To sustain its budget the park wants to build new facilities for resort concessions--even as Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Sequoia would like to rid themselves of such resorts.

Political factors make efforts to reduce in-park resorts appear to be in vain, however. Yellowstone's experience with Fishing Bridge is not too dissimilar from a resort in Sequoia known as the Giant Forest Lodge--cabins literally built into the forest. When the state of California condemned the lodge for inadequate sanitation, the only way the park could close the complex was to build a new one, though this time in a less controversial setting of a red fir forest.

Park Service critics claim that actions like these prove that concessions have too much clout within the agency. But as already noted, one of the factors sustaining the natural regulation policy is the fact that tourists like to see elk, deer, and other wildlife--yet the wildlife hire no lobbyists. In both cases--concessions and wildlife--the major factor is not lobbyists but park managers responding to Congressional funding policies.

Even while park managers respond to Congress by emphasizing quantity, most visitors would rather have a quality experience in the parks. During the 1970s, surveys of Yosemite Park users revealed near unanimity that the park should undergo a radical deconstruction of its lavish concession facilities, particularly those in the Yosemite Valley. The 1980 Yosemite general management plan echoed those sentiments by projecting a ten percent decrease in park lodging over the following decade. However, by 1994 not only had the decrease failed to materialize as promised, but total beds in the park had actually increased.

A final factor--if not the factor--promoting congestion is Congress' restriction on user fees. Higher fees could reduce congestion in the most popular parks. The fees would also alert park users to go to areas that are less congested--and therefore have lower fees. Such signals are the main purpose of market fees. After all, if restaurants could charge no more for entrees than the cost of a Big Mac, most restaurant food would be mediocre. Big Macs appeal to the fast-food market, but variable prices make it possible to serve other markets as well. It is better to run some national parks like fine restaurants than to insist that all be the price of a Big Mac.

Gateway Towns

As an offshoot of increasing visitation, people have raised concerns about the growth of gateway towns, villages like Estes Park, Colorado and Gatlinburg, Tennessee, that lie at the entrance points to major national parks. Critics contend that these villages are unsightly, that they attract harmful development, and that they encourage overuse of the parks. Yet gateway towns are responses to, not causes of, overcrowding and congestion.

For example, prior to Memorial Day, 1993, Yosemite's superintendent asked Californians to avoid the park to minimize crowds. So many followed his advice that Yosemite Valley's concessioner actually had vacancies. Because the park's own hotels must be filled to capacity before the overflow benefits towns on the park's western side, private hotel owners were up in arms. They savagely attacked the superintendent for advising visitors to stay away, for it was they and not the park who paid the economic price. Since then, the park has made no effort to scare visitors away and overcrowding problems persist.

The true ecological threat to parks are not the sometimes unsightly hotels and restaurants that lie at the entrances to America's major parks. Rather, the threat resides in the perverse incentives that have driven the Park Service into the business of feeding and lodging visitors as opposed to the managing natural resources for quality experiences. New incentives could encourage park managers to do what they do best: provide a wilderness experience--and let the gateway towns do what they know best: sell food, beds and souvenirs. If this should happen, the most imminent threat to the future of national parks would finally be put to rest and the quality of both our parks and our gateway towns would significantly improve.

Science in the Parks

Aside from Congressional politics, how did the Park Service get stuck with a flawed policy like natural regulation? Part of the answer is the historic relationship between scientists and managers within the agency. Many of the large parks employed biologists and other scientists, and they were always answerable to park superintendents.

The Forest Service also has a long history of scientific research, and in its early years its scientists also worked directly for forest managers. But, as Ashley Schiff describes in his 1962 book, Fire and Water, forest researchers in the 1920s and '30s were often directed to arrive at conclusions that were predetermined by the managers who employed them. To protect the quality of its research, by 1950 the Forest Service moved its scientists into a division completely separated from the national forests. The division was run by scientists and answerable to no managers below the level of the chief.

Perhaps because park management is less contentious than forest management, the reliability of Park Service science was rarely questioned until publication of Alston Chase's Playing God in Yellowstone. Unfortunately for his cause, Chase's book alienated almost everyone who might have supported him. The Park Service was thus able to dismiss Chase's main argument--that the Park Service was unscientific--by treating Chase like a crank.

But even before Chase there were signs of problems with park science. The most celebrated example has to do with the Yellowstone grizzly. Thanks to National Geographic, the nation's two most famous bear biologists--if not the most famous biologists of any kind--were John and Frank Craighead, who did much of their work studying Yellowstone grizzlies.

During the 1960s, park garbage dumps were a popular form of entertainment for visitors because they were a sure place to see grizzly bears. But, in response to the natural regulation policy, the park decided to close the dumps in 1969. The Craighead's warned that the sudden removal of a favorite food source jeopardized the grizzly population. When they refused to keep quiet, the Park Service cancelled their permits to do research in the park. The dumps were closed and the grizzly population crashed--mainly because the Park Service had to destroy numerous bears that insisted upon foraging around humans. The Park Service has never forgiven the Craigheads for being right, and now when they visit the park they are followed by a ranger who makes sure they don't do any covert research. Today the Craigheads freely describe Park Service research as "coercive."

Scientists who want to study the parks are often reluctant to criticize the agency for fear that, like the Craigheads, they will be shut out. But in recent years park policies have been increasingly criticized by people both inside and outside of the agency. One of the most prominent critics is Frederic Wagner, the associate dean at Utah State University's College of Natural Resources. Wagner has challenged the natural regulation policy and, in a larger view, the Park Service's internalized decisionmaking process that gives scientists and other members of the public little chance to influence policies or decisions.

Inside the Park Service, Yellowstone Park ecologist Richard Keigley claims that the agency ordered a halt to his research on the effects of elk herds on willow, aspen, and other trees. The Park Service's official position is that elk browsing is completely "natural" and typical of primitive America. When Keigley's early findings produced contrary evidence--namely that elk overgrazing was producing conditions completely different from those that existed in primitive America--the park ordered him to work on a different subject. Keigley now challenges the ethics of Park Service decisions and its research in several key areas. Partly to quiet him, the Park Service granted him a leave of absence to do research at a university.

Chase argued that the Park Service will never become truly scientific until it adopts a new organizational structure such as that of the Forest Service. While the Park Service refused to take this step, Congress did it for them, creating the National Biological Survey (recently renamed National Biological Service) and transferring nearly all Interior agency scientists into the new agency. But this "is not the answer," says Wagner. "Entrenched park administrators are still calling the shots on what research the biologists will and won't do." Perhaps that will improve as the new agency gains prestige, but as long as either agency depends on Congress for funds they can be counted on to respond to Congressional incentives.

External Threats

Shortcomings in the theory and policy of natural regulation are attributable in large part to an assortment of external factors that adversely impact the ecological integrity of national parks. In general, these factors operate either by disrupting vital ecological processes that extend across park boundaries or by directly affecting critical resources and resource values that are contained primarily within park boundaries. The full array of these factors, and the threats they pose to America's national parks, are truly staggering. Examples that show their general characteristics and the scope of their ecological impacts follow.

Death Valley. Death Valley Monument (now a park) faces a number of serious threats to its ecological integrity. Proposed cogeneration plants could significantly degrade the park's air quality. Construction of nuclear waste disposal facilities on surrounding military lands raises the specter of a new four-lane highway and increased industrial traffic, all of which could directly or indirectly impact the park's environmental well-being. Moreover, Death Valley lacks control over Highway 190, the principle road transecting the park. Although the state of California has offered to turn the road over to the park, the current structure and distribution of fees provides no financial incentive to Death Valley's administrators to assume control over the highway. Without control over the highway, the park is unable to charge entrance fees and, more importantly, cannot control the types of vehicles and loads--such as environmentally hazardous freight--that are permitted to cross the park.

Eclipsing all of these threats, however, is the ongoing and proposed pumping of groundwater from the aquifer that serves the Death Valley Basin. Currently, there are more than 300 active springs in the park, several of which provide flow for seasonal streams that support the park's small population of pupfish, or cyprindonts in the genera Siphateles and Catostomus. Increasing extraction of groundwater to serve the nearby city of Las Vegas--which has filed 146 water applications for 185,000 acre feet of water--and various agricultural and mining enterprises threatens to alter the hydrology of the park. Because the park lies at the bottom of the hydrologic basin, extraction of water further up will only deplete spring flows and possibly destroy the handful of fully-developed riparian areas in the park. If that happens, the species associated with those riparian zones--including the pupfish--will perish.

Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah. Like other national parks in heavily urbanized portions of the United States, the Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah parks face problems that are endemic to areas of high population concentration. In Shenandoah Park evidence is accumulating that air pollution is impairing visibility within the park and that increasing levels of certain airborne pollutants are damaging forest vegetation and affecting water quality of park streams through the process of acidification. Countering these claims, however, is research by Patrick Michaels, state climatologist for Virginia, that shows no appreciable change in air quality at Shenandoah over the past century.

Air quality conditions at the Great Smoky Mountains Park, however, are less ambiguous. A substantial body of evidence points to a direct impact on park vegetation arising from increasing levels of air pollution. Watershed measurements in that park show a steady rise in nitrate concentrations in recent years. Coincident with that increase, there has been deterioration of red spruce and a nearly 100% mortality of Fraser fir--a species that is common in Canada, but that reaches its southernmost terminus in the Great Smoky Mountains. Although tree mortality is attributed directly to a small, exotic, aphid-like insect, the balsam wooly adelgid, scientists believe that acid rainfall has weakened the defenses of fir and spruce against insect infestation.

Yellowstone. Yellowstone Park is most celebrated in the public mind for the abundance of its geothermal resources and the visual performance of its many geysers. The purchase of land outside of Gardiner, Montana, along the northern boundary of the park, by the Church Universal Triumphant poses a potential threat to those geysers and geothermal resources. The Church purchased the land to develop a farming and ranching community for its members. As part of its long term plans, the Church is considering the development of geothermal resources on its private lands. Park scientists and academics from nearby universities have expressed fear that such development would adversely impact the park's hydrology and alter the geothermal dynamics of the park's many geysers, pools, and hot springs.

Other Yellowstone problems include logging, grazing, and mining on adjacent federal lands. The Forest Service has incentives to encourage timber cutting and grazing of domestic animals even when recreation is more valuable. Hard rock mining is under the authority of the 1872 Mining Act, which was obsolete by the Progressive Era, yet it still gives miners access to public minerals at practically no cost. To keep their claims, miners are obligated to actually dig them every year, so conservation groups can't simply buy them out and leave the land and minerals alone.

Everglades. The Everglades may be the most threatened park in the National Park System. Its ecological lifeblood is water, the essential element that sustains its wetland ecology. However, the quality, timing and quantity of water reaching the park has drastically changed in recent years, threatening both its water scape and its indigenous animal and plant life.

First, water quality has been altered. Water flowing south from Lake Okeechobee into the Everglades picks up traces of nutrient-rich fertilizers from the adjacent, half-million acre Everglades Agricultural Area. These nutrients, in turn, have drastically altered the park's vegetation, eliminating the natural diversity of the park's marshes and replacing it with an emerging monoculture of cattails.

Second, the development of extensive canals, dikes and holding pens to control flooding, aid urban development and help agriculture has fundamentally changed the hydrology of the Everglades. Water flow into the park is now irregular, with too much water at the wrong times and too little water at the most crucial times. As a result, the Everglades are shrinking; its wetlands are drying up and its wildlife is vanishing. The park's population of nesting wading birds has decreased by 95 percent from more than a half-million in the 1930s to less than 15,000 today.

Rocky Mountain. Like many national parks, urban development along Rocky Mountain's boundaries is affecting the movement and ecology of wildlife. In particular, the expansion of Estes Park at the east entrance of the park and the continuing growth of the greater Denver metropolitan area along the front range, and its extension into the canyons of the foothills, have cut off historic migration routes of elk and shrunk available elk winter range. The consequences of transforming Rocky Mountain into a holding pen for elk are proving catastrophic for the park's wetlands, aspen forests and wildlife (see above discussion on natural regulation). Similar problems are occurring in Acadia National Park, where urban expansion is generating an overpopulation of white-tailed deer, and in Saguaro National Park, where urban expansion is isolating populations of deer and peccary between the two units of the park.

Glacier. The Park Service's 1980 State of the Parks report to Congress rated Glacier the most threatened national park in the system. The park faces fragmentation and degradation of its surrounding ecosystem by logging, mining, oil and gas extraction, and coal-fired electrical plants. Management on Blackfeet Reservation lands east of the park have harmed elk winter range, leading elk to overgraze parts of the park. Reservation logging activities have significantly altered the ecosystems along the park's boundary.

Finally, residential developments on private lands adjoining the park, particularly along the North Fork of the Flathead River, threaten to disrupt wildlife habitat and migration patterns. A park that for decades was isolated from major sources of disturbance is now surrounded and, in some cases, besieged by industrialization, intensive silviculture and agriculture, and recreational development. These factors are fundamentally transforming the natural ecosystem of Glacier Park and its surrounding wildlands.

Redwood. Redwood Park was created in 1968 for the general purpose of protecting and restoring a small fragment of the dwindling coastal redwood ecosystem--and for the more specific purpose of preserving the tallest tree in the world and the ancient grove of giant redwoods that contains it. To acquire, protect and restore Redwood Congress spent 1.65 billion dollars in the first 25 years of the park's existence, making it the most expensive protected area in American history. Despite generous allocations of federal dollars, the park is ecologically fragmented and its watershed ecology is seriously impaired.

First, the park is small and divided into isolated sections. It is not a coherent whole; it is a series of tiny fragments among other administratively distinct fragments (e.g., California State Parks) that in aggregate encompass only a fraction of the landscape that once sustained the greater redwood ecosystem. Because of fragmentation, the park is not a fully functioning ecosystem--at least not in the sense of its pre-Columbian origins. Second, fragmentation in conjunction with intensive forestry continues to play havoc with the park's fragile watersheds. Although park designation was seen as a way to halt sedimentation damage caused by clear cutting and road-building on adjacent private lands, the incremental growth of Redwood over the past quarter-century has not stopped the overall degradation of watershed conditions both within and beyond the park's boundaries.

Olympic. Olympic Park is easily spotted among the mosaic of clearcuts and roads that crisscross the Olympic Peninsula; it stands out as a distinct and well-defined forest island in the midst of an otherwise heavily dissected landscape. Except for two small parcels of state land, the park is completely surrounded by the Olympic National Forest. Bordering on and intermingled with the national forest are Indian reservation lands and parcels of private forest. Private and reservation timberlands are already in their second and third cutting rotations.

In contrast, Forest Service lands were not intensively harvested until recently. During the 1970s and 1980s much of the Olympic Forest was logged into massive clearcuts. State forest lands, managed by the Department of Natural Resources, have also been logged into massive clearcuts in recent years. The cumulative effect of intensive forestry has been to open the park to exotic species invasion, disrupt trans-boundary ecological processes--such as wildlife migration patterns--and to ecologically isolate Olympic Park from the more extensive Olympic Peninsula ecosystem. As a result, the park is ecologically incomplete, creating a cascading series of resource problems ranging from elk impacts to overgrazing by mountain goats to endangered salmon, cutthroat and sea trout fisheries.

Rainier. Mount Rainier Park has a long history of intensive grazing by resident elk herds. In recent years, however, the intensity of elk grazing has increased, seriously impacting the park's vegetation in selected areas. Unlike Rocky Mountain Park where urban and recreational development have constrained elk herds to an artificially small fraction of their original range, elk in Mt. Rainier are increasing in number and impact because of intensive logging on adjacent national forest lands. Clearcuts along the park's boundary have led to an expansion in accessible winter range forage. As a result, elk have expanded in population, and with more elk the grazing pressure on Mt. Rainier's summer ranges has increased steadily.

Now that secondary forest succession is underway on older forest clearcuts, forage outside the park will be begin to gradually diminish in quantity and quality. Predictably, this will result in substantial increases in grazing pressure within the park--at least until elk mortality from starvation finally culls the size of the herd to match the declining carrying capacity of the park and its surrounding, greater ecosystem. Until then, elk and summer range vegetation will be out of balance, dooming management strategies based solely on the assumptions of natural regulation.

The Seductive Idea of Expanding Park Boundaries

It is always tempting to think that external threats to the parks can be eliminated by making the parks bigger. If only Zion was Denali or Sequoia was Wrangell-St. Elias. If only Redwood controlled more of its upland watersheds; if only Glacier controlled adjacent national forests and Indian reservations; if only Rocky Mountain's winter range was not hemmed in by urban development from Estes Park, Boulder and Denver, then the external threats would vanish and the parks' ecological problems could be cured.

But boundaries are neither the cause of nor the cure to the park problems. Simply expanding boundaries to fix one set of ecological problems invariably opens the door to many more. Rocky Mountain Park officials have complained for years that developments along park boundaries are the main reason why the elk herd is eating more and more of the park. But if Estes Park could be erased from the map, other urban areas would still stand in the way of elk migrations. Even if the megalopolis from Fort Collins to Pueblo, Colorado, would somehow disappear, cattle ranchers and beet farms would still control habitat that was once prime elk winter range. Expanding boundaries cannot solve Rocky Mountain's problems.

For the moment, the ecosystems of the giant parks of Alaska, which are surrounded by largely undeveloped land, remain fairly intact. The wilderness areas surrounding Yellowstone and Glacier might be big enough to act as buffers. But most national parks are far too small to serve as vignettes of primitive America unless park managers take some positive steps, such as prescribed burning and control of opportunistic wildlife species, to protect those vignettes.

Unfortunately, Park Service history has taught the agency a different lesson. When Congress created Redwood Park in 1968, it knew that the small area of land included in the park would have to be supplemented by some cooperation from adjacent landowners. Congress directed the Park Service "to enter into contracts and cooperative agreements with the owners of land on the periphery of the park and on watersheds tributary to streams within the park designed to assure that the consequences of forestry management, timbering, land use, and soil conservation practices conducted thereon, or the lack of such practices, will not adversely affect the timber, soil, and streams within the park." The park did nothing, however, until the Sierra Club brought suit against it in 1974 for failing to abide by its congressional mandate.

Yet this inaction was rewarded in 1978 by congressional legislation that spent hundreds of millions to buy new land and restore watersheds. Doing nothing gave the park a windfall. Of course, the new, larger park was still bordered by private lands. Once again, Congress directed the agency to form cooperative agreements with adjacent landowners to protect the park. Not surprisingly, the park has ignored this directive as well. Of course, landowners have little incentive to cooperate if the government will simply buy them out when they do not.

No matter how large the park, it will have a boundary somewhere. Since such boundaries are invisible to wildlife, streams, and winds, actions outside the boundary will have an effect inside. If the goal of park management is to create vignettes of primitive America, then park officials will have to take actions inside the boundary as a substitute for what the outside world might have been in those days. This may mean shooting elk as a substitute for predators, native Americans, and other ecological processes. But as long as the parks are under the thumb of Congress, it is easier for Rocky Mountain Park to claim that outside development causes elk overgrazing than it is for them to deal with the elk themselves.

The responsibility of park management, even in the midst of the most malignant external threats, is to sustain or mimic to the greatest extent possible ecological processes and biological components essential to park naturalness. From this perspective, the gravest threats to the ecological integrity of the nation's parks may well lie within, not beyond, their boundaries. Indeed, evidence is compelling that the major threats facing America's parks today--short of those created by wrong-headed public policies--are either internal in origin or internal by solution.

Eliminating the Threats

The seriousness and magnitude of the external threats to park ecosystems cannot be denied. To counter them, park advocates have proposed solutions that are equally serious and bold. Former Park Service director William Penn Mott urges that endangered parks be surrounded by buffer strips within which the Park Service would be able to control development. The National Parks and Conservation Association wants to give the Park Service the authority to temporarily delay any projects that could threaten the parks. Legal scholars Robert Keiter and Joseph Sax argue that a "comprehensive legislative solution" is needed, including giving the Park Service authority over adjacent federal lands and giving the states incentives to protect private lands near the parks.

All of these proposals fail to note two important characteristics of nearly all of the external threats to the parks. First, the vast majority of these threats don't just threaten the parks--they threaten a wide variety of people and places. Air pollution, water pollution, depletion of groundwater supplies, and destruction of wildlife habitat are problems for national forests, other federal lands, state lands, private landowners, and millions of citizens. A program that solves these problems just in the national parks merely creates more problems elsewhere.

For example, the Environmental Protection Agency recently convinced the federal government and private firms to spend $3 billion to clean up a power plant in a remote part of Arizona that was suspected of causing haze in the Grand Canyon. While the 4.5 million people who briefly visit the Grand Canyon each year will certainly appreciate the increased visibility, that $3 billion is no longer available to clean up air pollution for the five million people who live in Los Angeles and Phoenix. There are trade offs in environmental cleanup just as there are trade offs in everything else; given the threats to human health of air pollution in major cities, urban cleanup might be a higher priority than park visibility.

The second characteristic common to nearly all external threats to the parks is that most result from pork barrel or some other poorly designed government policy. Pork barrel is the only reason for logging in the national forests adjacent to many national parks. Even in those forests where logging can make money, Congress' refusal to let the Forest Service charge fees for recreation gives forest managers an incentive to ignore recreation values that might be greater than timber values. Pork is also responsible for much of the public land mining that often threatens park water quality.

Pork is also behind most of the water pollution threatening the Everglades, since most of the agribusiness that pollutes the water is the tariff- and Corps of Engineer-supported sugar industry. Rather than supplement the subsidies that consumers already pay in the form of higher sugar prices with more subsidies to clean up the water, the federal government should simply end the tariff as well as the subsidized activities of the Corps of Engineers. This may hurt the domestic sugar industry, costing a few jobs, but it will save consumers and taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars per year.

Western water law, which typically doesn't recognize in-stream flows as a legitimate use of water, is an example of a poorly designed institution. The laws and institutions governing ground water and geothermal resources are even weaker. If water rights were unencumbered by beneficial use requirements and if they were as well-defined as property rights in land, it is unlikely that the Church Universal Triumphant--or anyone else--could tap the geothermal pool underlying Yellowstone at the expense of the integrity of the geysers. The same principle, of course, holds for the groundwater in Death Valley.

Another bad public policy that promotes overdevelopment of areas around the parks is the low fees charged for the parks themselves. Because access to the parks is nearly free, private landowners have little incentive to manage their lands for its scenic or dispersed recreation values. This means that the only way they can cash in on those values is to subdivide their land--which often ruins the scenery for someone else, such as the people in the parks. This is not to say that user fees will stop all developments around the parks, but many landowners would rather see their land left undeveloped--and they will be more likely to leave them that way if they can earn some income for doing so. Moreover, increased fees might give some parks the resources to purchase conservation easements of scenic areas in their viewsheds.

Fixing these problems will not be easy. But a truly comprehensive solution would fix them for everyone, not just for the national parks. Given the current mood of Congress and projections of future budget deficits, the best solutions will be ones that end subsidies to ecologically destructive activities rather than ones that create new subsidies in an attempt to counter the destructive ones.

Return to Different Drummer