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NPS For many, the National Park Service is seen as an agency of friendly rangers tasked with helping them get the most out of their national park vacation. But the agency is much more complex than that. Indeed, it could be seen as one of the country’s most science-focused agencies, as it deals with all sorts of “ologies” — biology, paleontology, archaeology, sociology, ecology, cetology, bioecology, and, in light of the popularity of dark night skies, even planetology, according to a story from the National Parks Traveler.

With such a role in both the federal government and society, is the National Park Service living up to that role? Is it able to? Is the agency properly using science to guide its mission? Two veterans who during their careers with the National Park Service were closely tied to the agency’s science mission are now concerned that the mission has gotten off track and needs to be refocused.

“One of the things that I noticed over the years was a lot of good people with a lot of experience gathered over decades, once they walked out the door, the new people had to reset, start it all over again. And that accumulated knowledge was really lost,” Michael Soukup, who rose to be the agency’s associate director for natural resource stewardship and science, told the Traveler for a podcast.

“Sometimes you could tap that later on with retirees organizations or something like global parks,” he added. “But by and large, there was a big tremendous drain of experience, hard-won experience, and some knowledge and maybe even some wisdom that came out of those years.”

Sharing Soukup’s concerns is Gary Machlis, who served as the visiting social scientist for the National Park Service and as former Park Service Director Jon Jarvis’s science advisor. The two expressed their concerns in a new book they co-authored, American Covenant: National Parks, Their Promise In Our Nation’s Future.

“I think partly it’s human nature that each generation of leaders wants to establish their own identity,” replied Machlis when asked why there has been a loss of institutional knowledge in the Park Service. “And part of it was the Park Service is extraordinarily good at telling stories to the public, but not so good as telling our stories to each other. There wasn’t a lot of listening that went on among the different generations of Park Service folk. Each generation thought the generations before it didn’t do it quite right, and now they were going to do it. And then they made their mistakes, and then the next generation did it.”

“The mission of the Park Service is such a long-term protracted, focused kind of requirement,” added Soukup. “What the Park Service is asked to do is something that requires a continuous period of success, generation after generation. And how do you really make sure that happens with each new political administration and each new generation of employees. How do you make sure that the adherence to that covenant makes sense to each new generation and is adhered to by each new generation of employees, but also the public and Congress and everyone else? It’s a very difficult mission, and it’s really not something that the Park Service, because it’s a federal agency, is really geared for and it could be improved.”

To determine how well the Park Service’s science mission has been embraced, we can look back to 2012 and Revisiting Leopold: Resource Stewardship in the National Parks, the 23-page report Director Jarvis requested in a move to, as the Traveler noted at the time, reinvent how the Park Service approaches scientific study and management of natural resources. The report cast the National Park Service as the agency that could best rescue, protect, and preserve America’s natural resources. But has the agency lived up to the promise of that report?

“My observation from the distance of retirement is no. And in fact, it worries me that I see signs that, of the progress that has been made since the turn of the 20th century, some of that’s being lost and in the Park Service is going back to its default mode of really focusing on the things that they’re most comfortable with, which is visitor services,” said Soukup.

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