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.
This essay first appeared in High Country News.