ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, Colo. -- At 12,000 feet above sea level, the summit of Trail Ridge Road offers breathtaking views of some of the highest and craggiest peaks in the southern Rocky Mountains.
But during a recent tour of this lofty landscape, research teams were concerned most with what was going on at their boots. Climate change is suspected of causing subtle changes to flora and fauna in the park's alpine tundra environment, changes that the National Park Service is just beginning to track.
Helping the service gather data here are hundreds of students and other citizen volunteers participating in BioBlitz, a 10-year campaign aimed at collecting information about resources and getting more people involved in protecting parks and national monuments.
The effort points to a new direction for the Park Service, which is four years from its centennial.
"Things are always in a state of change," said Neil Mulholland, president and CEO of the National Park Foundation, a co-sponsor of BioBlitz. "Some change is quick, and some change is long, but the thing about the Park Service is it's completed its first 100 years and now it looks forward to the challenges of the next 100 years."
Fifty years ago, the National Park Service began changing its management of wild and scenic areas, following recommendations from conservationist A. Starker Leopold and his team in 1963. Decades of allowing visitors to feed and harass wildlife ended then, and a strict separation between the two has been enforced ever since. Mounting problems with litter were tackled, and predators and wildfires were reintroduced to balance ecosystems.
But despite concerted efforts to keep the national parks in as pristine a state of nature as possible, rangers and ecologists have found that to be a nearly impossible task.
Invasive species are encroaching into Joshua Tree National Park in California, for instance, threatening the survival of the park's namesake. A similar transformation is under way in Florida's Everglades National Park, where invasive Burmese pythons are expanding their range.
The out-of-control spread of the mountain pine beetle has wreaked havoc across several Western parks. And climate change is thought to be altering the habitats of multiple species, or threatening the existence of others like the hearty pika, a small furry mammal that is one of the few to thrive at the frigid peaks of mountains in this and other parks, such as North Cascades and Yosemite.
A year ago, NPS Director Jon Jarvis commissioned a team to study the problems the parks face today and how best the service can manage them. Their findings, now out, suggest that NPS take a new approach to park management (Greenwire, Aug. 28).
Rather than maintaining the parks as a "vignette of primitive America" as suggested in the 1963 Leopold report, a new advisory board is asking NPS to accept that the nation's wild lands are and will remain in a constant state of flux, most of which is out of its control. The best the Park Service can do is monitor and manage the changes to the maximum ecological benefit possible, however scientists decide to define that, the new report's authors argue.
"We were given the charge by the American people to preserve these places unimpaired for future generations, and yet we are seeing on a daily basis anthropogenic change to the parks, from climate change, from air pollution or from habitat fragmentation," Jarvis said in an interview.
Leopold proposed a management model that assumed the government could return the parks to a state in which they existed before widespread human settlement, Jarvis said. His model meant restoring predators and staging controlled burns in some areas to maintain forest health, among other efforts to mimic how nature might have taken care of resources before the disruptions brought by civilization.
"We've been doing that for 50 years, and now we're realizing that in spite of doing all that we're still getting these changes," Jarvis said. The new approach, he hopes, will "help us reframe that and rethink how we're going to manage these parks in the future."
A movie, not a snapshot
The man-made changes Jarvis referred to are varied and complex, but they are also rapidly accumulating. The most visible change to this park is the effect caused by the mountain pine beetle.
Whole mountainsides have been transformed here from green to purple as pine trees infected by the insect wither and die. As those trees fall by the wayside, they are often replaced with aspen, gradually transforming Rocky Mountain National Park from a predominantly evergreen landscape into a mixture of deciduous and coniferous forest.
Seasonal changes are also out of whack as precipitation in this park becomes less reliable and predictable. Staci Amburgey, a graduate student at Colorado State University and a field technician for the U.S. Geological Survey, said one good example of this is the erratic breeding patterns she is seeing in many of the frog species that she studies.
Bigger changes are often found at higher elevations, she noted.
"The main problem is that a lot of your habitats, especially in the alpine areas like this, don't really have anywhere to go," Amburgey explained. "They are at the top of the mountain, so they just get into a spot where they no longer have a habitat or community that's really good for them anymore."
Another issue that concerns Jarvis and others is the growing human presence, especially in parks found closest to cities. Downtown Denver is just a 90-minute drive from the park's main gate, and the number of visitors grows each year along with the city's population.
And then there is the pollution that cities bring. Scientists are discovering higher levels of ozone -- a precursor of smog -- and soot in parks' air. During BioBlitz, one team collected samples of dragonfly larvae to be later tested for mercury, part of a nationwide project.
Colleen Flanagan, an ecologist in NPS's air division, said the decision to enlist volunteers for that project was a strategic one. "Citizen scientists" are being actively recruited to the effort, which is under way in 14 national parks and should produce the first data on mercury concentrations in park lakes and ponds early next year.
"We're getting citizen scientists involved in this study because we want to increase public awareness about the issue," Flanagan said. "This has actually been piloted out in the northeastern United States, and a lot of schools have been connecting with the project."
Not all the changes being studied point to a bleak future for parks.
Discussing the pine beetle problem, Rocky Mountain spokesman Kyle Patterson said some good may come of the infestation over the long run. Allowing a different mix of tree species to grow atop the hills and mountainsides will change the look of the park, she said, but it may also make forests more resilient to future outbreaks. And the newer aspens replacing the pines are also making room for wildflowers to establish themselves, she added.
Healy Hamilton, a senior research fellow on the National Park Advisory Board and co-author of the new study "Revisiting Leopold: Resource Stewardship in the National Parks," said that such an attitude as that espoused by Patterson -- acceptance of change and discovering what's good in it -- is one that her team hopes the entire park system will adopt.
"If we try to manage a static snapshot of the past, we're entering a losing battle," Hamilton said. "We need to think of management in the national park as almost management of a movie, of a shifting picture over time instead of a photo snapshot back in time."
'This is real science'
To facilitate this, the advisory board recommends in its report that NPS "undertake a major, systematic and comprehensive review of its policies, despite the risk and uncertainty that this effort may entail."
Jarvis told Greenwire that he plans to get started as soon as possible, kicking off a national series of meetings with scientists, advocacy groups and NPS employees that will continue for the next six months or so to discuss new approaches.
The advisory board also recommends that NPS hire new scientists committed to a more flexible, holistic approach to park management. These scientists should also be stationed within the parks as much as possible, they said, to enable them to constantly influence resource management efforts.
The board also calls for involving the public into this new national park management approach as much as possible, one of its most thought-provoking recommendations.
Rather than maintaining a strict buffer zone between nature and the public, it says, a new approach would encourage visitors to become immersed in the park through participatory research and other science and education programs.
"Distinctive and transformative experiences should be available to all Americans in all units of the National Park System," the report says.
Jarvis said that the recent BioBlitz series of events is the perfect example of this.
"This is real science. This is not some made-up kind of thing," he said. "This is a statistically designed sample of the national park on this given particular day, this 24-hour period, that can be replicated 50 years from now."
NPS is getting help for the BioBlitz project from the National Geographic Society, which is helping to sponsor, organize and publicize the events. The arrangement with National Geographic is a sign of things to come, said John Francis, the organization's vice president for research.
"We wanted to see how to invigorate, with National Geographic's media, the perspective of the whole population on how they view themselves and nature," Francis said of the partnership's start. "We wanted to build bridges to the scientists and to the public, and do it in urban locations, where we felt that people are getting more and more disenfranchised from the rest of nature."
Last year's BioBlitz was held in Saguaro National Park next to Tucson, Ariz. Next year's will be hosted by Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve near New Orleans. Francis said he hopes to continue organizing these events until 2016, when NPS hits its 100th anniversary.
Though volunteers of all ages are accepted, Mulholland at the National Park Foundation feels it is most important to involve young people in management and conservation projects. Doing so could help foster the next generation of scientists that Hamilton and the 12-member advisory board recommend developing.
"You get them in a bus, you get them in a park, and it's a transformational experience," Mulholland said. "Our responsibility is to introduce them to these things. Our responsibility is to create curriculum for them to have these experiences, and by doing it the kids become very excited."
Aside from National Geographic, the Park Service is reaching out for other private-sector assistance. This year's round of publicly engaged research in the Colorado Rockies was sponsored in part by big corporate names like Southwest Airlines, Verizon and Geico.
Francis said that in an era of tight Park Service budgets, allowing corporate sponsorship of future park events, and even possible contributions for research and conservation initiatives, is a viable model that visitors to the national parks should expect to see more in the near future.
"I think every corporation can do its part," he said. "It's not like you want to supplant government responsibility, but you want to augment it where you can."
During his supervision of the most recent species assessment at Rocky Mountain National Park, NPS chief Jarvis expressed confidence that the future approach, demonstrated to some extent by the BioBlitz programs, can work.
A more nuanced approach to tackling problems like the pine beetle's spread is appropriate, he said, and far from impeding science and conservation efforts, public participation in the management and care of the national park system would likely benefit all involved.
"The 200-plus volunteer scientists that we have active with us, each of them have their own objective as well, within their own field," Jarvis said. "We have some of the best specialists in the world here -- entomology, aquatic ecology and others -- and they are looking for new species, whether it's new species to this area or new species to science. So it's hitting their objectives as well."