National Academy of Sciences Advisory Committee on Research in the National Parks: The Robbins Report
The report submitted to the Secretary describes how the Committee conducted its study and surveys the development of the national parks idea, which originated in the United States and has reached its fullest expression there. It calls attention to the responsibilities and obligations which stem from the worldwide recognition and appreciation of the leadership of the United States in this area.
It discusses some of the historical aspects of the establishment of national parks, the first of which was Yellowstone National Park in 1872, and highlights the characteristics of some of the 31 parks now in existence. The report asserts that the national parks of the United States are among the most valuable heritages of this country; that in setting these lands aside the people and the government of the United States demonstrated particular wisdom; and that the role of national parks in the lives of our citizens is dramatically enlarging.
The objectives or purposes of the National Park Service are discussed in the light of the origin of the national parks and the various Acts of Congress which deal with them. The conclusion is reached that the Service should strive first to preserve and conserve the national parks with due consideration for the enjoyment by their owners, the people of the United States, of the aesthetic, spiritual, inspirational, educational, and scientific values which are inherent in natural wonders and nature’s creatures. The Service should be concerned with the preservation of nature in the national parks, the maintenance of natural conditions, and the avoidance of artificiality, with such provisions for the accommodation of visitors as will neither destroy nor deteriorate the natural features, which should be preserved for the enjoyment of future visitors who may come to the parks.
Each park should be regarded as a system of interrelated plants, animals, and habitat (an ecosystem) in which evolutionary processes will occur under such control and guidance as seems necessary to preserve its unique features. Naturalness, the avoidance of artificiality, should be the rule.
Each park should be dealt with individually, and the National Park Service in consultation with appropriate advisers should define their objectives and purposes for each park. These will vary from park to park and in general should be those for which the park was originally established, with special consideration for the specific natural phenomena (biological, geological, archeological) which instigated its establishment.
The report points out that the National Park Service has the responsibility of administering the national parks in accordance with the purposes for which they are or may be set aside by specific Acts of Congress and emphasizes that knowledge about the parks and their problems is needed to discharge this responsibility. Such knowledge comes from research, especially research in natural history.
An examination of natural history research in the National Park Service shows that it has been only incipient, consisting of many reports, numerous recommendations, vacillations in policy, and little action.
Research by the National Park Service has lacked continuity, coordination, and depth. It has been marked by expediency rather than by long-term considerations. It has in general lacked direction, has been fragmented between divisions and branches, has been applied piecemeal, has suffered because of a failure to recognize the distinctions between research and administrative decision-making, and has failed to insure the implementation of the results of research in operational management.
In fact, the Committee is not convinced that the policies of the National Park Service have been such that the potential contribution of research and a research staff to the solution of the problems of the national parks is recognized and appreciated. Reports and recommendations on this subject will remain futile unless and until the National Park Service itself becomes research-minded and is prepared to support research and to apply its findings.
It is inconceivable that property so unique and valuable as the national parks, used by such a large number of people, and regarded internationally as one of the finest examples of our national spirit should not be provided adequately with competent research scientists in natural history as elementary insurance for the preservation and best use of the parks.
It is pointed out, however, that the results of research can neither be predicted or prejudged. The results may not always be pleasant. They may indicate that a facility should not have been built, that a road should have been routed another way, that visitors into a particular region should not be encouraged in large numbers and without control. It may even indicate that a particular park has deteriorated so far that it can never be returned to its former state. It is the very integrity of these conclusions, however, that make it essential that they be brought to bear upon the management problems of the national parks.
The report presents the pressing need for research in the national parks by citing specific examples in which degradation or deterioration has occurred because research on which proper management operations should have been based was not carried out in time; because the results of research known to operational management were not implemented; or because the research staff was not consulted before action was taken. In still other situations problems are recognized for the solution of which research is needed, but where none has been undertaken or planned or, if planned, has not been financed.
Attention is called to the meager dollar support given to research and development in the natural sciences in the national parks. In the National Park Service as a whole less than one per cent of the appropriation in 1960, 1961, and 1962 was devoted to research and development while the proportion for comparable government agencies was in the neighborhood of 10 per cent. In fact, unless drastic steps are immediately taken there is a good possibility that within this generation several, if not all, the national parks will be degraded to a state totally different from that for which they were preserved and in which they were to be enjoyed.
Particular attention is called to the precarious condition of the Everglades National Park and the big trees in California.
As a result of the study made by the Committee a series of twenty recommendations are made.
- The objectives or purposes of each national park should be defined.
- The natural history resources of each park should be inventoried and mapped.
- A distinction should be made between administration, operational management, and research management.
- A permanent, independent, and identifiable research unit should be established within the National Park Service to conduct and supervise research in natural history in the national parks and to serve as consultant on natural history problems for the entire National Park System.
- The research unit in natural history in the National Park Service should be organized as a line arrangement, with an “Assistant Director for Research in the Natural Sciences” reporting to the Director of the National Park Service.
- Most of the research by the National Park Service should be mission-oriented.
- The National Park Service should itself plan and administer its own mission-oriented research program directed toward the preservation, restoration, and interpretation of the national parks.
- Research should be designed to anticipate and prevent problems in operational management as well as to meet those which have already developed.
- A research program should be prepared for each park.
- Consultation with the research unit in natural history of the National Park Service should precede all decisions on management operations involving preservation, restoration, development, protection and interpretation and the public use of a park.
- Research on aquatic life, as well as on that existing on and above the land, should be pursued to assist in determining general policies or the maintenance of natural conditions for their scientific, educational, and cultural values.
- Research should include specific attention to significant changes in land use, in other natural resource use, or in economic activities on areas adjacent to national parks likely to affect the parks.
- Research laboratories or centers should be established for a national park when justified by the nature of the park and the importance of the research.
- The results of research undertaken by the National Park Service should be publishable and should be published.
- Additional substantial financial support should be furnished the National Park Service for research in the national parks.
- Cooperative planning as a result of research should be fostered with other agencies which administer public and private lands devoted to conservation and to recreation.
- Universities, private research institutions, and qualified independent investigators should be encouraged to use the national parks in teaching and research.
- Consideration should be given to including in the budget of the National Park Service an item for aid to advanced students who wish to conduct research in the national parks.
- A Scientific Advisory Committee for the National Park Service should be established, and Scientific Advisory Committees for individual parks are desirable.
- Action in implementing the recommendations of the present Committee’s report should be taken promptly.