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Revisiting Leopold in the National Parks

The US National Park Service protects National Seashores, National Battlefields, National Monuments, National Historic Sites, National Memorials, and even National Parks. In total, the agency manages 397 “units” across the country and its territories. That number just might approximate the number of policy reports over the past half-century that have offered countless recommendations on what the agency ought to be doing to protect America’s natural and cultural resources. Given enough time, some of these reports—well, most of them—have been highly effective at warping bookshelves. Yet some of them have made a difference, and few have had more lasting impact than the 1963 report Wildlife Management in the National Parks, more commonly known as the Leopold Report after its lead author, A. Starker Leopold (son of famed conservationist Aldo Leopold). The Leopold Report’s recommendations have acted as a beacon for the NPS’s wildlife conservation efforts for nearly 50 years. It’s central message came in a succinct, oft-cited paragraph worth citing in its entirety: As a primary goal, we would recommend that the biotic associations within each park 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. Spot quiz: What’s the keyword in this passage? If you said “vignette,” you may be right. And that’s a bit sad, given the word’s dictionary definition as “a brief evocative description, account, or episode” (Oxford online). We want our country’s wildlife to be more than a “brief episode,” right? But let’s not be too fussy on the semantics of words most of us don’t commonly use—my bet is that Starker Leopold and his coauthors would have chosen a different word if they knew that a future blogger (“a what?”) would be running to his online (“huh?”) dictionary. Rather than point to “vignette,” I would propose that the keyword here is “within.” Leopold et al. certainly recognized that what happens outside a park could pose a threat to wildlife within parks. Nonetheless, their focus was on what happens within a park, and their working assumption was that what happens in a park could be “maintained” given proper implementation of the right policies. Climate change poses a direct challenge to that assumption. To the NPS’s credit, it has recognized this issue—at least insofar as (1) the NPS directed the Science Committee of the National Park System Advisory Board to review and update the Leopold report, and (2) last month the advisory board published what may some day come to be seen as another seminal report: Revisiting Leopold: Resource stewardship in the National Parks. It’s a short report (24 pages) and well worth reading; despite having been written by a committee, it doesn’t read as if it were written by a committee. Rather than try to summarize it, here are a few key passages—one or more of which may become as well-known as the “vignette” quote above (note that I’ve highlighted in green my projection as to what some future blogger, or whatever we’re calling them, will be quoting in forty some years): • “While individual parks can be considered distinct units, they are—regardless of size—embedded in larger regional and continental landscapes influenced by adjacent land and water uses and regional cultures. Connectivity across these broader land- and seascapes is essential for system resilience over time to support animal movements, gene flow, and response to cycles of natural disturbance.” • “In contemporary and future resource management, the functional qualities of biodiversity, evolutionary potential, and system resilience matter as much as observable features of iconic species and grand land- and seascapes.” • “The overarching goal of NPS resource management should be to steward NPS resources for continuous change that is not yet fully understood, in order to preserve ecological integrity and cultural and historical authenticity, provide visitors with transformative experiences, and form the core of a national conservation land- and seascape.” • “A coherent and sustainable national conservation land- and seascape recognizes that 21st-century conservation challenges require an expansion in the spatial, temporal, and social scales of resource stewardship.” • “Confronted with continuous and dynamic change and the goal of preserving ecological integrity, NPS management strategies must be expanded to encompass a geographic scope beyond park boundaries to larger landscapes and to consider longer time horizons.” • “Investing in science is essential, but it is only one element in preparing NPS stewardship for the future. The NPS must also expand its capacity to manage natural and cultural resources efficiently across large-scale landscapes, avoiding unnecessary bureaucracy while engaging networks, collaborations with academic institutions and other federal agencies (notably the U.S. Geological Survey), and partnerships with states, tribes, and the private sector.” What the Advisory Board is saying here is very encouraging. For the past two years, I’ve been co-editing the recent Island Press volume, Conservation and Climate Change: Landscape and Seascape Science, Planning and Action. Many of the recommendations that filtered out of our 19 geographic case studies are reflected in this document. If the NPS pays attention to what the Advisory Board’s Science Committee has said, then the country’s most visible natural resource agency will have begun the arduous climb toward conservation strategies that effectively respond to the threat of climate change.