Not long after he moved into his office as director of the National Park Service, Jon Jarvis turned to Dr. Gary Machlis to serve as his science advisor. It's a new role for the agency, one that more than a few folks hope will broaden the Park Service's focus on science.
Director Jarvis' ambition to strengthen his agency's science mission should be welcomed by those who view the parks not only as recreational destinations but also landscapes steeped in science -- both that have already probed and that which have remained hidden.
Dr. Machlis, a professor of conservation science at the University of Idaho, comes to his role with strong views that the agency needs to polish its scientific credentials. The Park Service's science mission long has been underfunded, he says, and that has hindered the agency in both research and educational outreach.
"Advancing science in and for the NPS needs to happen on several fronts simultaneously," said Dr. Machlis. "We need to confront the challenge of climate change, and develop the NPS response as an effective mix of mitigation, adaptation, and education. We need to respond to the recent Second Century Commission's recommendations, including the call for the NPS to direct its in-house science program. We need to take advantage of the park's extraordinary value as places for kids of all ages to learn science, and to make science education an enjoyable part of the visitor's experience.
"And we need to deal with a range of technical issues -- from collection policies to ungulate management to peer-review of NPS science. Each of these requires creativity and initiative on the part of the Service."
When it comes to adequate funding for science, Dr. Machlis believes that the agency "has been chronically underfunded." Without adequate funds, he explained, it is difficult to understand not only what is being preserved, or what needs to be preserved, across the 84-million-acre National Park System, but also how the system functions, "particularly at the ecosystem scale."
Beyond conducting science in the parks, Dr. Machlis believes there's a need to provide NPS employees with continuing science education.
"The NPS has access to some outstanding training options; we need to develop science training that takes advantage of these options in ways that improve our use of scientific knowledge, makes training a key part of advancement (particularly to the superintendency), and saves money and resources," he said. "The focus should be on how to best use science to make good decisions, and for that, I am intrigued with using a case study approach, similar to top business and management schools -- only in this instance the cases are science-based."
In the months ahead Dr. Machlis plans to travel about the country, visiting units of the park system to familiarize himself with the current state of science affairs.
"I'll be traveling to parks and regional offices, both to learn in the field and at the conference table. Some outstanding science is underway, in fields from archeology to wildlife zoology, and I'm excited to learn first-hand about the work. I'm a journaler, and my field notebook won't be far from me on the visits," he said.
Kurt Repanshek is the author of several national park guidebooks, including National Parks With Kids. You can get a daily dose of national park news, trivia, and commentary by visiting www.nationalparkstraveler.com, which tracks "Commentary, News, and Life in America's Parks." Follow National Parks Traveler on Twitter at www.twitter.com/parkstraveler.