Science guides National Park Service into its second century


In March 1915, Stephen Mather and Horace Albright, future National Park Service directors, hosted a small gathering of conservationists, scientists, and business leaders at the University of California, Berkeley, to promote America’s national parks. Those efforts, led by the parks’ biggest booster Stephen T. Mather, a UC Berkeley alum and self-made millionaire, coalesced into an agency — called the National Park Service — that would oversee the protection and development of the dozen national parks that had been designated since Yellowstone National Park became America’s first in 1872.

The National Park Service, officially created in August 1916, has been administering an ever-growing number of public lands, historical sites, and cultural properties — many of which today are iconic symbols of all the best that America is or represents. In fact, a 2009 documentary series produced by filmmaker Ken Burns described these national parks (and 348 other national monuments and preserves) as “America’s Best Idea.”


Science for Parks

On March 25 to 27, to commemorate that historic gathering and highlight a century of collaboration between UC Berkeley and the National Park Service, conservationists, scientists, educators, and agency officials gathered at UC Berkeley for a symposium entitled “Science for Parks, Parks for Science: The Next Century.” The three-day conference featured plenary sessions, poster displays, and sessions of presented papers by researchers who discussed biological and cultural curation and celebrated the parks’ ability to restore and preserve.

The plenary sessions dealt with the past, present, and future of the national parks and its relationship with education while the presented papers highlighted the work of those scientists with boots on the ground. There were several contributed papers dealing with research and restoration projects in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.


Sequoia-Kings Canyon: Amphibians

Danny Boiano, a Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks ecologist, presented the findings of data collected since 2001 in the recovery of the critically endangered Sierra and mountain yellow-legged frogs. Boiano detailed his work at several high-elevation aquatic landscapes that included both the eradication of non-native trout and treatment of certain streams with an anti-fungal agent in attempts to save the species from extinction.

Boiano also revealed several other methods like immunization, translocation, and captive rearing that are useful in the restoration of endangered species like the Sierra and yellow-legged frogs. 

“This research and restoration is critical in these Sierra parks.” Boiano said. “This is where the boundary exists for two endangered frog species.”

In 2001, in LeConte Canyon in Kings Canyon National Park, Boiano explained, there were as few as 200 frogs remaining. As a result of the project, that population has increased to more than 18,000 in three years.

“Today, the frogs in this aquatic ecosystem are healthy and more resistant to disease and climate change,” Boiano said. 

There is funding in place to continue this work for the next six years, he said. A final EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) for the next phase is expected to be completed later this year.


Sequoia-Kings Canyon: Meadows and wetlands

Evan Wolf, a UC Davis researcher, presented his findings on the restoration of Halstead Meadow, which is intersected by the Generals Highway in Sequoia National Park. His topic spoke directly to repairing legacy grazing impacts in the Sierra Nevada.

Halstead Meadow restoration is critical, Wolf said, because wetlands constitute only one percent of the Sierra landscape. Halstead is the largest meadow in Sequoia National Park but its stream flow and wildlife migration were previously interrupted by 19th century grazing and, later, the park highway. 

Previous grazing had removed the plants from the meadow and caused the subsequent erosion of a gully as is typical in meadows that were historically used as feed for domestic livestock. To restore the meadow, scientists first study the stratigraphy of the soil so they can determine what was going on prior to the grazing.

Once they discovered what was there, Wolf said, more than 800 dump truck loads of dirt were brought in and the sedge plant community was replanted. That had the effect of bringing up the water table and restoring the natural stream flow.      

A new bridge was constructed by the Federal Highways Administration that was designed to aid the natural stream flow. Wolf said that during the several years of work at Halstead Meadow, researchers learned important lessons that can be applied at other locales like Cahoon Meadow in the more remote South Fork area of Sequoia National Park, which is currently being considered for restoration.


System-wide: The endangered night sky

Bob Meadows and Dan Duriscoe, both formerly stationed at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, were presenters during the Pollution and Parks segment of the Science for Parks symposium. 

Bob, a physical scientist with the Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division of the National Park Service, is based in Fort Collins, Colo. His presentation centered on research conducted at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota and the effects of nearby fracking and its byproducts of artificial light — gas flares, makeshift employees’ camps, and massive storage yards — that have caused the night sky to vanish.  

Dan, a GIS specialist with the NPS currently stationed in Bishop, discussed the equipment used to best measure light trespass on the night sky.


Sequoia-Kings Canyon: Research is ongoing

These papers are only an inkling of current research being conducted in the local parks and detailed at the recent conference.                  

“We often think of national parks as scenic wonders and recreational outlets,” said Woody Smeck, superintendent of Sequoia-Kings Canyon, who was in attendance at the conference. “But they also tell a story of what it means to be an American. We need to do a better job of promoting the ‘storyteller’ aspect of our mission. Secretary Sally Jewell spoke eloquently about this role and challenged park managers to do more to connect all people to their national parks — especially young people.”  

To watch a video of “America’s Two Best Ideas: Public Education an
d Public Land,” a conversation at the conference moderated by KQED Forum host Michael Krasny and included U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell; president of the University of California Janet Napolitano; historian and author Douglas Brinkley; and UC Berkeley chancellor Nicholas Dirks, go to And it wouldn’t be a true Berkeley event without a protestor or two.

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