National Academy of Sciences Advisory Committee on Research in the National Parks: The Robbins Report
Use of the National Parks by Scientists for Basic Research
Although the word “research” does not appear in the National Park Service Act of 1916, when new parks were created their use by scientists was soon advocated. In 1902, an invitation to so use them was specifically included in the Act establishing Crater Lake National Park.
Outside institutions, recognizing the value of these areas for research, accepted the Service’s invitation. In 1914, the University of California began in Yosemite the first of its series of scientific monographs and shorter publications on the ecology of western national parks and monuments.
In 1917, the annual report of the Director of the National Park Service stated:
“It is our hope to encourage the general use of all parks as fields for scientific study.”
The list of publications and reports appended to this report demonstrates the research which has resulted from this encouragement.
The mission of the National Park Service is to preserve and conserve the national parks for the proper enjoyment of them by their owners, the people of the United States, and by future generations. Research carried on by the National Park Service should be governed primarily by this mission.
National Parks are, however, more than areas of importance for the aesthetic, spiritual, inspirational and educational values inherent in their physiographic and biological features. They are irreplaceable natural laboratories in which scientific studies can be carried out which would not be possible in even the most elaborate and conventional man-made laboratory. In the national parks it is possible to study the structure, interrelations and behavior of biological communities, discover how they are adapted to their environment and compare them with the artificial communities elsewhere created by the clearings, drainage, and contamination, and by the introduction of exotic animals and plants by man. They offer the opportunity to pursue long-term ecological studies difficult if not impossible to conduct elsewhere. Such studies by university scientists and independent investigators should be systematically encouraged by the National Park Service. For example, Isle Royale National Park is an area with a nearly undisturbed balance of plants and animals including moose, wolves, and beaver; it is an unrivaled laboratory in which to learn the role played by each species in an ecological system and by comparison with other areas to learn the effect of man on the land and the living things which inhabit it.
The National Parks contain unique or nearly unique plants and animals which may be of great scientific importance.
The thermophilic algae and other organisms in hot springs offer challenging questions of a fundamental character. What accounts for their ability to survive at temperatures considerably above those which are lethal for most organisms? The blind fish and other organisms in Mammoth Cave and other blind organisms in Carlsbad Caverns raise another series of questions which are basic to the problem of evolution and the loss of organs through disuse. Can natural selection account for the origin of these creatures or are principles at work with which we are ill acquainted?
The genus Tripsacum has become important in maize (Zea Mays) breeding, and the discovery that T. floridanum hybridizes readily with maize and produces highly fertile hybrids has aroused a great deal of interest in Tripsacum as a source of breeding material. The University of Illinois has three men devoting virtually all their time to research on hybrids of maize and Tripsacum, much of it on hybrids between maize andT. floridanum. T. floridanum occurs in the Everglades National Park; and Dr. Paul Mangelsdorf, “dean” of students of the genetics of maize, has this to say:
“T. floridanum is confined to southern Florida and its natural habitats are constantly being encroached upon by the construction of residential areas, highways, and airports. I first collected this species beside a shell road just south of Homestead. When I looked for it there again last September the road had been paved and the Tripsacum had disappeared. It is still to be found in empty lots in Homestead and indeed as far north as Coral Gables but these empty lots will eventually be built on and the Tripsacum will be destroyed. All of these facts point to the importance of maintaining the Everglades National Park, if for no other reason than to preserve this grass which is related to maize, and which is an endemic to the southern part of Florida. I suspect that the Everglades National Park has other endemics which are of botanical interest but probably none is so closely related to America’s principal food plant, corn.”
Glaciers in the Cascade Mountains are advancing in contrast to the steady retreat of those almost everywhere else in the world, including glaciers in Olympic National Park. A comparative study of the glaciers of the Cascade Mountains and those of nearby Olympic National Park might contribute to our understanding of the mechanics of glaciation and the Pleistocene era.
The Grand Canyon of the Colorado still serves as a classic laboratory for the study of geologic history of the formation of this continent. The Grand Tetons and Jackson Hole form one of the finest examples in the world of blockfault mountain building, exposing a very fine geologic sequence from Precambrian to Mesozoic. Glacier National Park presents an equally fine example of overthrust faulting.
The temperate rain forest of Olympic Park, the subtropical Everglades, the desert flora of Big Bend National Park provide nearly unique situations for ecological studies.
For those interested in the vulcanology of the Pacific Basin, Lassen Volcanic Park and Hawaii Volcanoes contain some of the most active volcanic regions in the northern western hemisphere.
Climatological investigations involving the geysers of Yellowstone National Park are being conducted by the Atmospheric Service Research Center of the State University of New York; ecological and geological studies are being conducted at Mammoth Cave; and glaciological studies in McKinley National Park.
The narrow, deep, well-watered gorge of McKittrick Canyon, a part of Carlsbad Caverns National Park in the Guadalupe Mountains, offers a striking contrast to the desert conditions of the surrounding terrain. In this narrow canyon, scientists have found an association of plants and animals which represent a relict from the Pleistocene era. More than 20 species of insects new to science have been discovered; four of them belong to new genera and it is likely that more new species, both plant and animal, exist there. An abundance of small and uncommon reptiles has been discovered. McKittrick Canyon offers to the biologist an opportunity to study an unusual example of evolution, and the ecological relations of organisms carried over from ancient times.
The isolated, high-altitude valley of Paradise Park in Rocky Mountain National Park has been virtually unmolested ecologically since the last glacial epoch. Many situations like McKittrick Canyon and the valley of Paradise Park exist in the national parks and offer the biologist an opportunity to study the interrelations of plants, animals and their habitat unmodified and undisturbed by man. They are rapidly disappearing elsewhere. This is not the place to list all the opportunities for research in the national parks. They are numerous and fundamental and range widely in the physical and biological sciences.
The Committee urges that the Park Service encourage research activities by independent investigators in these and other fields in the national parks. There are opportunities available that will increase general scientific knowledge and provide insight into basic scientific questions. The Committee does not believe that the Park Service itself should engage extensively in such research activities, however. There are sufficient research problems directly related to park management questions to absorb most of the efforts which can appropriately be directly supported by the Park Service. The Committee feels that independent research conducted in the national parks should be carried out with the full knowledge and permission of the Service and that cooperation between Park Service research personnel and independent research personnel should be encouraged. Independent researchers should realize that the Park Service, with its responsibilities to preserve the parks and to make them available to the public, must exercise its responsibility to insure that no research activity is harmful to the parks nor interferes with the preservation of natural conditions and public enjoyment. On the other hand, the Park Service must honor the basic freedom of the independent investigator to pursue his objectives, within the limits of these responsibilities, without interference.
Furthermore, the Park Service should avoid interference with independent research which has been authorized within the parks. Recently, in Mammoth Cave National Park, a beetle study plot in the cave was severely damaged when workmen, improving the visitor access in another area of the cave, dumped rubble and boulders down a shaft directly above the study plot. Similarly, in Shenandoah National Park a mammal study plot, without warning, was bulldozed into a new campsite area.
The Park Service should make every effort to support and accommodate independent research effort, and should recognize that basic research of this kind will enhance the importance of the national parks and will contribute to the interpretational functions of the Service and to our national scientific effort.
Closely related to the use of the national parks for basic research is their use for teaching and for research by advanced students. The Committee believes that there is considerable opportunity for advanced students to engage in research problems in the national parks. The National Park Service has engaged in a program part of which was directed towards this purpose: the Student Conservation Program. These efforts have demonstrated that such advanced student training can be beneficial to the park and to the individual. The concept of cost-sharing by the Park Service and interested private capital in the Student Conservation Program might offer an arrangement which would well serve the Park Service needs in research staff at the field assistant level and might reduce the necessity of maintaining the number of individuals required throughout the entire year on the permanent staff of the Park Service.