UT scientists offer thoughts on U.S. National Park Service centennial

Jenny Schlauch

On Aug. 25, America celebrated the centennial birthday of the National Park Service. 

Now, a few weeks later, UT professors look at the future of America’s natural spaces and how they are affected by human activities.

UT climatologist Kris Wilson said national parks can be overcrowded and underfunded. 

One might visit Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley expecting to drive through pristine vistas but find instead a line of traffic. Crowds like this are not uncommon, especially in popular parks, and funding for National Parks is still insufficient despite their increased popularity, Wilson said. This combination prevents park facilities from being properly maintained and leads to overpacked, littered trails.

Denali National Park attempted to counter overcrowding and pollution issues with a new strategy: Cars cannot venture more than 15 miles into the park. Instead, a bus service runs through the park and takes people to the inner grounds. This has been successful and could be a possible solution for other popular National Parks, according to Wilson.

Hunting and logging are two major topics of controversy for National Park management, according to Lawrence Gilbert, director of the Brackenridge Field Laboratory. While hunting can harm vulnerable species, it can also curb unwanted population growth when properly regulated. 

“Ironically, legal hunting and the license fees that are required support wildlife research, management and protection of animals,” Gilbert said.

Thomas Atkinson, a collection manager at UT, said that sometimes wildlife preservation can hurt as much as it helps. He provided the example of two major national forest threats: bark beetles and fire.

Bark beetles are native insects found across the U.S. that live under the bark of unhealthy trees. While these beetles are not usually a major threat, they can be highly destructive to forests of stressed adult trees, such as those in Rocky Mountains National Park, according to Atkinson. 

Atkinson said that parks can reduce stress on their trees by using controlled burns to cut down on crowding and overgrowth and prevent wildfires. He said that in many national parks and forests, however, clearing or burning of trees is frowned upon. 

People may miss the towering trees, but these trees are not sustainable and are merely a phase in the dynamic, natural cycle of forests, Atkinson said. Preventing the death of overgrown trees suppresses other natural processes and can limit diversity and the progress of the biome. 

“The biggest threat to our national parks is our perception of trying to preserve something that doesn’t sit still,” Atkinson said. “Nature is dynamic, and suppressing it can have catastrophic effects.”

Learning about and gaining awareness of environmental issues is the best thing an individual can do to help the future of the national parks, according to Atkinson. He encouraged people to look into research behind ecological problems and understand that natural events must run their course in order for an ecosystem to maintain itself.

National park awareness has increased recently due to climate change news and other media, according to Wilson. Social media movements such as the #FindYourPark tag work to make people aware of and interested in nature and its preservation. Instagram and Facebook allow people to post images of speckled night skies, glossy scarab beetles and beautiful wildflowers, allowing those who live in cities to admire and become inspired by wilderness they might otherwise never be able to experience.

Locally, Wilson said it is important for specialists to participate in community outreach. For example, weather reporters often visit elementary and middle schools to teach kids about the importance of environmental conservation. In higher education, proper teaching of life sciences naturally increases respect for and knowledge about the environment, said Gilbert.

People should also be aware of other natural areas such as state parks and nature preserves, Wilson said. Even urban cities like Austin have several parks, such as the Wilderness Basin Preserve and the Barton Creek Greenbelt.

“Everyone needs to balance short-term and long-term thinking when it comes to the environment,” Gilbert said. “We need to abandon the false dichotomy between human needs versus nature. Respect for nature and fellow organisms through increased teaching of natural history in schools would be a positive step.”