National Academy of Sciences Advisory Committee on Research in the National Parks: The Robbins Report
At the request of the Secretary of the Interior, the President of the National Academy of Sciences appointed an Advisory Committee to the National Park Service on Research and instructed it to submit to the Secretary of the Interior a report on the natural history research needs and opportunities in the National Park System.
The agreement between the National Park Service and the National Academy of Sciences, dated June 29, 1962, states that advice and assistance on a research program are needed because the national parks are complex natural systems which, for their care, management, development, use, protection and interpretation, require a broad ecological understanding and continuous flow of knowledge about the characteristics of the national parks and monuments, the nature of normal and man-imposed forces at work within them and of the relation of man to these natural environments and because they constitute a scientific resource of increasing value to scientists in this country and abroad.
The Committee was specifically instructed to:
“A. Conduct a study of national park research accomplishments, needs, resources, values, and opportunities in the natural sciences and in such related fields as may be deemed appropriate by the Academy; and
“B. To submit to the Secretary of the Interior a report which shall:
- Describe in reasonable detail the methods used in performance of the study described in “A” above; and
- Set forth in reasonable detail any relevant and material data gathered or disclosed as part of said study, or in connection with it; and
- Set forth the Academy’s findings and recommendations for a research program designed to provide the data required for effective management, development, protection, and interpretation of the national parks; and to encourage the greater use of the national parks by scientists for basic research.”
In making its study and recommendations the Committee has devoted its attention mainly to those 31 areas specifically designated as national parks, though the Committee recognizes that some areas otherwise labeled (especially a number of the national monuments) should be included with the national parks because of their area and/or character.
The Committee has given most consideration to the role of natural history in the national parks. At the same time, it has not forgotten that important factors affecting the proper maintenance of the natural features of the national parks include visitor use, access by road, land use in surrounding areas and the location and architecture of man-made facilities; and that archeology and human history as well as natural history are related to the overall consideration of the Committee’s directive. The Committee has not endeavored to propose research programs for solving the problems of any specific park, though it calls attention to some existing problems in particular parks.
In its study the Committee has recognized numerous problems which deserve investigation because of their importance for the national parks. Not all of them were believed to be pertinent to the major directives of this Committee and not all could be considered adequately in the time at its disposal. Some are mentioned and briefly discussed below; others are considered at more length later.
For example, what are the objectives or purposes of the national parks? There is some confusion and uncertainty, even within the National Park Service itself, about the proper purposes and objectives for which the national parks should be administered. Yet it is obvious that a definition of objectives is of prime importance, and the Committee considered this question at some length.
What is the effect of the rapidly increasing number of visitors on the national parks? The magnitude of this problem impressed the Committee when figures on attendance were examined. In 1933 nearly 3,500,000 visits were made to the areas administered by the National Park Service. By 1962, this number had increased to 88,500,000; and it is estimated that in 1972 the total number of visits will have reached the fantastic figure of 126,000,000. A considerable proportion of visitors go to the national parks.
In 1962, for example, 32,000,000 visits were made to the national parks, which include 0.6 per cent of the total area of the United States. It is estimated that in 1972 there will be nearly 41,000,000 visits to the national parks.
Figures for individual parks are equally impressive. In 1951 about 500,000 visits were made to Grand Teton National Park; in 1962 the number was nearly 1,800,000, and the estimate for 1972 is 2,600,000. Graphs of numbers of visitors annually to a number of national parks during the past 20 or 30 years are presented.  They reveal that with the exception of Crater Lake and Carlsbad Caverns attendance has been rapidly increasing for those parks which had 500,000 visitors or more in 1962. These are, in general, the larger parks and readily accessible to centers of population. With one exception (the Virgin Islands National Park) attendance for those with fewer than 500,000 visitors in 1962, has reached a constant level or has decreased. This emphasizes that parks must be considered individually, generalizations are not necessarily correct, except for the aggregate.
It is obvious that the large numbers concentrated in the summer months in many of the national parks present a group of serious problems which range from simple logistics to human relations and the impact of people on the plants, animals and habitat of the park itself. Why do visitors come to the national parks? What proportion simply pass through the park without planning a stop over? How many leave the roads and penetrate the wilderness areas? How far should provision for camp, cabin, or lodge accommodations meet the demands for such facilities? Should the number of visitors to a park be limited? What is the effect of a park on visitors and what is their effect on a park? Since the results of a special investigation under the aegis of the Conservation Foundation on the effects of people on the parks will be reported separately to the Secretary, this Committee did not pursue the visitor problem extensively.
What is the proper place of the national parks in the totality of Federal land management? How are proper uses of the national parks coordinated with those of other public lands? What harm or benefit results from management practices or the lack thereof on lands adjacent to the national parks and vice versa? To what extent do the national parks suffer from uses which do not conform to the legally expressed purposes? What are the attitudes of local and state authorities toward a national park? Is its national and international importance fully appreciated locally; is its economic contribution correctly judged; is it considered to be something in which to take pride or an area to be exploited without regard to effects on the park? What are the interrelations in research between natural history and archeology, history, landscape design and architecture in the National Park Service? How is research of the United States Geological Survey, Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife, the Forest Service and the National Park Service correlated?
These questions and many others came before the Committee and were discussed; on many the Committee is not prepared to express a judgment; on others recommendations will be found at the end of this report.
Reference to national parks hereafter will apply only to those 31 areas; reference to the National Park System will include the 31 national parks and other areas administered by the National Park Service.