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Report offers a roadmap for America's national parks

Dorothy Davis / NPS

National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis, second from right, with members of the National Park Service Advisory Board Science Committee at Acadia National Park in 2011 discussing resource management in the national park system. Committee chair, Dr. Rita Colwell, is left of Jarvis. Others in the photo, from left, to right: Dr. Gary Machlis, science advisor to Jarvis, Dr. Michael Novacek, Dr. Joel Berger, Dr. Thomas Lovejoy, Dr. Gary E. Davis, Colwell, Jarvis, and Dr. Susan Avery.

On the eve of its 96th birthday on Saturday, the National Park Service is getting a special gift: A new report that is both the first of its kind in the last 50 years and a benchmark for the future.

Announced by NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis in a ceremony at Rocky Mountain National Park on Friday, the report represents a science-based effort to ensure America’s parks remain protected, accessible and relevant as the system approaches its second century and the world around them undergoes massive change.

While the report focuses on the future, its title — “Revisiting Leopold: Resource Stewardship in the National Parks” — alludes to its half-century heritage. In 1963, A. Starker Leopold, son of noted conservationist Aldo Leopold, was the lead author of a report that sought to bring science-based principles to park management.

The Leopold Report, as it came to be known, was ostensibly focused on managing proliferating elk populations in Yellowstone National Park. However, it also introduced what have now become standard policies, including the reintroduction of predators and the use of controlled fires to shape park landscapes.

“It was groundbreaking for the time,” Jarvis told NBC News. “The original Leopold Report has been the bedrock of park management since the 1960s.”

It was not, however, without its critics, who cited the report’s conclusion that parks should be managed as “vignettes of primitive America,” a static vision that’s become increasingly outdated in the face of changing environmental conditions, evolving demographics and 50 years of scientific advancement.

Chuck Burton / AP

Some of the nation's most beautiful places are in peril.

“We wanted to reinforce Leopold but also lay the foundation for the much more complicated issues that we’re facing today,” said Jarvis. “It was tantamount to rewriting the New Testament.”

To accomplish the task, Jarvis called on the NPS Advisory Board Science Committee, a group of 12 experts who visited parks, including Acadia and Everglades; analyzed current management practices; and incorporated new research on climate change and other 21st-century challenges.

Not surprisingly, their findings read like an academic text. But the takeaway is that park management must be predicated on principles that recognize that change is inevitable, ongoing and not always well-understood; that parks are part of larger landscapes and ecosystems, and that many of the challenges they face come from beyond their boundaries.

“What we know now that we didn’t know 50 years ago is that when you create islands by fragmenting habitat, the habitat itself starts to change,” said Thomas Lovejoy, a committee member and professor at George Mason University. “It’s not necessarily about expanding protected areas but rather raising awareness to get a better result.”

Other findings and recommendations include calls for working with partners outside park boundaries to maintain those larger landscapes (and seascapes); recognizing the importance of the parks’ cultural, as well as natural, resources; and understanding the impacts of a growing and increasingly diverse population.

Clearly, that’s a tall order for an agency that’s continuously underfunded and under pressure to do more with less. And while the new report doesn’t propose specific solutions for specific problems, it does set out guiding principles based on the best science currently available.

“We know more now than we did in 1963 and we’ll know more in the future,” said James Nations, vice president of the National Parks Conservation Association’s Center for Park Research, who was not involved in the project. “The report offers an understanding of where the Park Service needs to go to properly manage the resources that America is asking them to manage.”

For committee member Gary Davis, a consultant and marine ecologist, that understanding actually goes both ways. In the summer of 1964, he arrived in Lassen Volcanic National Park as a young park ranger trainee and was immediately handed a copy of the original Leopold Report.

“It was a real eye-opener,” he told NBC News.com. “It took me beyond the idea of parks as just places for family vacations and explained the natural processes that were going on and the science behind them.”

Now, nearly 50 years later, Davis and his fellow committee members hope to do the same in light of changes in the parks themselves, the world around them and our understanding of the processes that impact them both.

“It’s not that Leopold got it wrong; it’s that the world has changed,” said Davis. “`If we’re going to hang on to these remnants of our heritage, we need to change the way we approach them.”

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.

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