UC Berkeley and the Fourth Paradigm Shift for National Parks and Equivalent Reserves

November 15, 2017

The United States of America can rightfully claim the original idea behind and the execution of national parks.  Beginning with Abraham Lincoln’s Yosemite Grant of the Mariposa grove of giant sequoia trees to the State of California in 1864 and followed soon after by the congressional designation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, the US led the world in protecting places of great natural wonder specifically for the “enjoyment and benefit of the people”. 

Over that period, the US has learned that National Parks do not manage themselves. To be protected and well managed, parks require a professional organization, consistent funding, adaptation to changing circumstances, complex infrastructure, and guiding policies and rules and regulations.  Overarching all of these details must be a long term vision crafted from a set of principles that have a foundation in sound science and scholarship.

These principles must be durable but not fixed in stone.  They must weather political winds that push for compromise or redirection for short term gain.  They must resist popular trends for activities that are inappropriate (or damaging) to the preservation of the resources embodied in that park.   

In 2016, the National Park Service turned 100, and the National Park System had grown to 417 parks and the idea of national parks has been adopted in over 200 countries worldwide. While parks are all different, there are some commonalities.  One of those commonalities is that every so often, there is a paradigm shift in the way parks and equivalent protected areas are managed.  The University of California, Berkeley, has been a significant leader in each of those shifts in the past and it is therefore appropriate that Berkeley lead the next shift.  The focus of the new Berkeley Institute for Parks, People and Biodiversity is to frame this next paradigm shift. It is important to understand each of the previous shifts.

Stephen Mather was a UC Berkeley Graduate in the class of 1887 and went on to a career with the Borax industry around Death Valley.  Mather became wealthy and also developed a deep love of the emerging national parks. He was also appalled at their deplorable condition, as in the turn of the century, they were essentially unmanaged.

He wrote a letter to the Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane, who also attended Berkeley, complaining bitterly about the condition of the parks.  Lane wrote back to Mather and said if you don’t like the way they are run, come to Washington to run them yourself. Mather took that challenge, but first he built a constituency for the creation of a national park service.  In 1915, he organized the first National Parks Conference at UC Berkeley, housing the attendees in his fraternity house, Sigma Chi.

In 1915, Mather also gathered what became known as the Mather Mountain Party for a two-week trip in the high sierra.  In order to achieve the support for the establishment of a National Park Service, Mather knew that if he got the right people out into one of these extraordinary landscapes, for enough time to let the varnish of civilization wash off, they would become converts.

The party included writers for the Saturday Evening Post, the vice president of the southern pacific railroad, and the publisher of the Visalia Newspaper.  Mather brought along the ranking republican congressman on Appropriations. There was a professional photographer, several prominent attorneys and businessmen, California's state engineer, and Gilbert Grosvenor, director of the National Geographic Society.   The Mather Mountain Party included the President of the American Museum of Natural History who was later one of the founders of Save the Redwoods League in 1918. There was also one park ranger who served as horse packer, and two Chinese cooks, Ty Sing and his assistant, Eugene.

For two weeks, this group camped in alpine meadows, plunged into cold streams, revelled under a starlit night sky and silently absorbed stunning vistas.  Cunningly, Mather let the mountains do their magic, and the trappings of a busy society, even a hundred years ago, melted away, and bonds were formed with each other and the land.  Each night around the fire, under that amazing Sierra night sky, they talked of conservation and of the future of national parks.

Every member of the Mather Mountain party vowed their active support for the creation of the National Park Service. Mather went back to Washington and with a partnership with the National Geographic Society crafted the National Park Service Organic Act, which passed Congress and was signed by President Wilson on August 25, 1916.  

This was the first paradigm shift led by Berkeley graduates: that national parks needed professional management by a federal agency, empowered with authority, appropriately funded and given a clear mandate.  

Mather was at his heart a marketing guy, and attuned to the image of the NPS. He created the Ranger persona, hired former military commanders and designed the uniform from that worn by the Army.  The Ranger hat we know today came from the military “campaign” hat seen in World War 1.

If anything, Mather leaned towards to the “promote” and “enjoyment” side of the equation and the early days of the public experience including feeding bears, dipping your handkerchief in the hot pools of Yellowstone, and watching the firefall in Yosemite.  Predators like wolves and coyotes and lions were killed and elk and deer fed hay. Streams and lakes were stocked with trout and new facilities were built, often in the heart of the resources.

Back at Berkeley, about this same time, 1914, UC Berkeley professor Joseph Grinnell launched his surveys of the Yosemite National park.  Grinnell rightly thought that if you were going to manage these resources, you should know what lives there. He also was an ardent conservationist, writing the article  “Animal Life as an Asset of National Parks" (1916), where he criticized the NPS practice of killing predators. He wrote: "As a rule, predaceous animals should be left unmolested and allowed to retain their primitive relation to the rest of the fauna ... as their number is already kept within proper limits by the available food supply, nothing is to be gained by reducing it still further." 

The NPS at the time ignored these recommendations.

Today, University of California Professor Dr. Steve Beissinger has been returning to Grinnell’s research sites and collecting new data.  This pioneering Grinnell resurvey work has shown significant changes in wildlife in the Sierras that can be linked to climate change.

One of Grinnell’s students at Berkeley was a young man from a prominent El Salvadoran family named George Melendez Wright.  Wright used his own personal funds to hire staff, joined the National Park Service as one of its first true biologists and took Grinnell’s idea across the entire national park system, launching a flora and fauna survey of all the parks.

The work of both UC Berkeley’s Wright and Grinnell pioneered the second paradigm shift, that management of the resources requires a strong scientific understanding and a baseline of information upon which to measure change.  Wright was killed at the young age of 31 in a tragic car accident, but his influence on the management of parks based on sound science is still recognized.

While Wright and Grinnell pioneered the gathering of scientific data about parks, the agency itself was not really using it to make policy decisions.  It lacked a framework upon which to apply its knowledge. Some issues begged for action, one in particular was the growing population of elk in the Grand Teton valley.  Once viewed as more the better, they were becoming nuisances to the ranchers in the summer and dying by the hundreds from starvation in the winter. The Secretary of the Interior Stuart Udall tasked UC Berkeley Professor Starker Leopold to investigate and report on this issue.  Starker came from good stock, as he was the son of the famous conservationist Aldo Leopold, author of a Sand County Almanac. He spent much of his youth at the infamous chicken shack in the woods of Michigan, learning from his father how nature worked.

Starker and his small team recognized the many decades of predator control, killing of so called “problem bears” and the elimination of natural occurring fire began to show significant problems in the national parks.  An example was the over-abundance of elk in the Yellowstone ecosystem. The population had continued to grow into thousands of animals due to no predation because wolves had been exterminated and the bear population was quite small at the time.

In 1964, Starker Leopold released a report on Wildlife Management in the National Parks.

The “Leopold Report” as it has become known was a seminal work, transforming the way parks and public lands, not only here in the US but around the world, are managed.

The report suggests that parks are to be managed as “vignettes of primitive America”, that the parks should be manipulated to recreate the environment that would have existed in the pre-colonial days of America.  He recommended that extirpated species be returned and natural processes like fire be re-introduced. This was the third paradigm shift in park management, led again by faculty from UC Berkeley.

This new policy was not immediately embraced by the NPS and took about a decade to really become imbedded into park management policies and operations. Over time, the Leopold report became the foundation of park management policies in the US and around the world. Its framework led to the restoration of fire in the Sierra’s, the return of wolves to Yellowstone, the removal of dams on the Elwha River, and the control of exotics plants and animals across the system.  It has withstood fifty years of policy application and legal challenge.

But now, with human caused climate change, is it still viable?

In recent years, there have been challenges to that paradigm, much of it due to a rapidly changing climate. Glaciers are melting, species driven by climate appearing for the first time in parks, fires burning for a longer season, and storms ravaging coastal parks. Attempting to hold our national parks in some sort of ecological stasis based on an interpretation of a pre-contact America was no longer possible and not even viable.  

A new paradigm is needed for the management of our natural and cultural resources that was reflective of these emerging challenges but also respectful of our history and basic mission to leave these parks “unimpaired for future generations.”  

So, in 2011, the National Park System Advisory Board Science Committee revisited the Starker Leopold Report.  The Science Committee was chaired by Dr. Rita Colwell, former Director of the National Science Foundation, and included conservation scientists, retired NPS professionals, members of the National Academy of Sciences, as well as a Nobel Laureate and two recipients of the Presidential Medal of Science.  In 2012, they released “Revisiting Leopold, Resource Stewardship in the National Parks”, as a citizen recommendation to the Secretary of the interior and the Director of the National Park Service. (https://www.nps.gov/calltoaction/pdf/leopoldreport_2012.pdf)The authors chronicled the following findings:

Environmental changes confronting national parks are widespread, complex, accelerating, and volatile.

  • Increased scientific knowledge is essential to manage parks for change while confronting uncertainty, and to construct contemporary tactics for NPS park stewardship.
  • Management based on historically successful practices cannot be assumed to be effective in the future.
  • Management of natural and cultural resources must occur interdependently. Division of the National Park System into “natural parks” and “cultural parks” is artificial.
  • Iconic species and grand land- seascapes depend on difficult to observe but essential characteristics and processes of healthy ecosystems.
  • Cultural resources extend beyond buildings and historic sites to include landscapes, indigenous values, diverse cultural knowledge, and the recent past.
  • Park stewardship requires land- and seascape strategies and tactics at regional scales.

The authors also articulated a new overarching goal for the national parks:

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: 1) preserve ecological integrity and cultural and historical authenticity, 2) provide visitors with transformative experiences, and 3) form the core of a national conservation land- and seascape.”  

In 2015, the University of California, Berkeley, hosted a Parks for Science, Science for Parks Conference where many of the issues were discussed including the implications from the Revisiting Leopold Report.  From that conference emerged two important products. The first was a collection of essays, published by the University of Chicago Press as Science, Conservation and National Parks, edited by Steven Beissinger, David Ackerly, Holly Doremus, and Gary Machlis. The second was the idea of creating a new Institute that would follow up on these ideas and issues, driving research and policy into the future.  So was born idea of the Institute for Parks, People and Biodiversity.

The new Institute for Parks, People and Biodiversity will be leading this challenge most appropriately from the University of California, Berkeley, designing the fourth paradigm for the stewardship of our parks and public lands.