The National Park Service has an epiphany

“We were probably always wrong to think about protected places as static.” – NPS Scientist

During the Trump administration federal agencies were forced to be silent about climate change.  Behind closed doors, many federal agencies were quietly preparing for the day when they would be able to begin the process of adapting to climate change. 

Shortly after the 2020 presidential election, the National Park Service published a natural resources report that announced a radical departure from traditional conservation strategy that was based on an assumption that nature is static and evolution a historical event.  “Resist-Accept-Direct—A framework for the 21st century resource manager” acknowledged that the rapidly changing climate requires a new approach based on the knowledge that nature is dynamic and evolution is a current and continuous event.  Many other federal agencies participated in the preparation of the report, which implies that other federal agencies may adopt the new conservation strategy. (1)

In April 2021, the National Park Service published policy guidance for park managers based on the principles of “Resist-Accept-Direct.” The New York Times interviewed the lead author of the policy guidance, who described the new conservation strategy of the National Park Service:   “The concept of things going back to some historical fixed condition is really just no longer tenable.” 

Acadia National Park, Maine

An ecologist and the science coordinator of Acadia National Park in Maine told NY Times what this new strategy meant to him and his colleagues.  He said that as recently as 2007 protected areas like the national parks were still being thought about as static places that could be preserved forever with the right techniques. “We weren’t being trained on how to manage for change,” he said. “We were being trained on how to keep things like they were in the past.”  That means nearly everyone in his line of work was caught unprepared for the current reality. “You have a whole profession of people having to shift how we think.  We were probably always wrong to think about protected places as static.”

Evolution of National Park Service Policy:  From preservation to restoration

The federal law that established the National Park Service in 1916, defined its mission:

“…which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

H.R. 15522, An Act to establish a National Park Service, engrossed August 5, 1916 (1)

Preservation was the original mission of the National Park Service.  In 1963, the mission of the National Park Service was radically changed by the Leopold Report, written by A. Starker Leopold, the son of Aldo Leopold.  The Leopold Report recommended a goal for national parks of maintaining historical conditions as closely as possible to those “of primitive America.”  When the Leopold Report was adopted as official policy by the National Park Service in 1967, it committed NPS to restoring park lands to pre-settlement conditions:

“Passive protection is not enough. Active management of the natural environment, plus a sensitive application of discipline in park planning, use, and development, are requirements for today’ Simultaneously, that edition of NPS policies also described the primary management task as a seemingly simple undertaking: ‘[safeguard] forests, wildlife, and natural features against direct removal, impairment, or destruction,’ and ‘[apply] ecological management techniques to neutralize the unnatural influences of man, thus permitting the natural environment to be maintained essentially by natural agents’” (1)

In 1967, the land management goals of the National Park Service became more ambitious.  The goal of “preservation” was replaced by the goal of “restoring” historic landscapes and ecosystems.  The pre-settlement landscape of 500 years ago on the East Coast and 250 years ago on the West Coast was established as the baseline landscape that NPS was committed to re-creating.  The baseline landscape was presumed to be “pristine” although it had been actively gardened by indigenous people for thousands of years.

The new land management strategy of the National Park Service

The National Park Service calls its new land management strategy the RAD framework, an acronym that summarizes three alternative strategies:  

  1. “Resist the trajectory of change, by working to maintain or restore ecosystem processes, function, structure, or composition based upon historical or acceptable current conditions.
  2. “Accept the trajectory of change, by allowing ecosystem processes, function, structure, or composition to change, without intervening to alter their trajectory.
  3. “Direct the trajectory of change, by actively shaping ecosystem processes, function, structure, or composition towards desired new conditions.” (1)

Every land management decision will choose among these alternatives based on an analysis that will begin with a climate assessment. Instead of looking to the past for guidance, the planning process will assess current conditions and project future climate conditions.  Based on that assessment, the purpose of land management plans will be adaptation to current and anticipated conditions.  Every plan will be designed for a specific place, based on specific current and anticipated conditions.  There is no one-size-fits-all plan, only a framework for devising individual plans tailored for specific parks or ecosystems within parks. 

The new strategy also makes a commitment to monitor the project as plans are implemented and modify the strategy as the environment continues to change and the ecosystem responds to land management.  This is called “adaptive management” and it is essential in a rapidly changing environment. The project doesn’t end, because nature never stops changing.  It’s a process for which there is no end-stage.

It’s a challenging strategy, but one that has the potential to be less destructive than the “restoration” paradigm that always began by destroying plants and animals perceived as intruders without historical precedents.  Precisely what it will mean remains to be seen.  There will probably be pockets of resistance from those who remain committed to the “restoration” paradigm and those who are economically dependent on existing projects.  All the more reason to continue to watch what is being done and participate in whatever public process is available

An example of an NPS project that should be abandoned.

There are undoubtedly hundreds, perhaps thousands of NPS projects that are based on the ambitious restoration goals of the 1963 Leopold Report.  Perhaps some were successful.  My personal knowledge of NPS projects is limited to those in the San Francisco Bay Area, my home.

Point Reyes National Seashore

An attempt to eradicate European beach grass in the Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS) is an example of an NPS “restoration” project that should be abandoned if the new RAD framework is implemented.  The PRNS project was described by NPS staff at the 2018 conference of the California Invasive Plant Council, a source and a setting that should be considered credible by the most ardent supporters of ecological “restorations.”

About 60% of sand dunes in the Point Reyes National Seashore were covered in European beach grass when the eradication effort began in 2000.  The goal of the project was to restore native dune plants and increase the population of endangered snowy plovers that nest on bare sand.  The project began by manually pulling beach grass from 30 acres of dunes at Abbott’s Lagoon.  The grass grew back within one year, presumably because the roots of the beach grass are about 10 feet long.  Manually pulling the grass from the surface does not destroy the roots. 

A new method was devised that was more successful with respect to eradicating the beach grass.  The grass and its roots were plowed up by bulldozers and buried deep in the sand.  The cost of that method was prohibitively expensive at $25,000 to $30,000 per acre and the barren sand caused other problems.  The barren dunes were mobile in the wind.  Sand blew into adjacent ranches and residential areas, causing neighbors of the park to object to the project.  The sand also encroached into areas where there were native plants, burying them.  The bare sand was eventually colonized by “secondary invaders.”  Different non-native plants replaced the beach grass because they were more competitive than the desired native plants. 

In 2011, the National Park Service adopted a third strategy for converting beach grass to native dune plants.  They sprayed the beach grass with a mixture of glyphosate and imazapyr.  At $2,500 to $3,000 per acre, this eradication method was significantly cheaper than the mechanical method.  However, it resulted in different problems that prevented the establishment of native dune plants.  The poisoned thatch of dead beach grass was a physical barrier to successful seed germination and establishment of a new landscape.  Where secondary invaders were capable of penetrating the dead thatch, the resulting vegetation does not resemble native dunes. 

Presentation at California Invasive Plant Council conference regarding attempt to eradicate European beach grass at Point Reyes National Seashore, November 2018

The concluding slides of the presentation of NPS staff about this project were stunning.  The slides said it is a “Restoration fallacy that killing an invader will result in native vegetation.”  My 20-plus years of watching these futile efforts confirm this reality.  However, I never expected to hear that said by someone actually engaged in this effort.  The presenter mused that such projects are like Sisyphus trying to roll a boulder up hill.

Presentation at California Invasive Plant Council conference regarding attempt to eradicate European beach grass at Point Reyes National Seashore. November 2018

Looking forward, not back

The realization—or perhaps acknowledgement—that the NPS strategy of re-creating historical landscapes is unrealistic was a long time coming.  Over the 50 years that the “restoration” strategy was attempted much unnecessary damage was done.  Useful, functional landscapes were destroyed.  Healthy trees were destroyed solely because they were planted by Europeans.  Animals were killed because they were perceived to be competitors of “native” animals.  Herbicides poisoned the soil, preventing regeneration or germination of new vegetation.  Established landscapes that had not needed irrigation were replaced with native plants that required irrigation.  Stabilizing vegetation was destroyed, resulting in erosion and drifting sand. 

The National Park Service has awakened to the failure of their “restoration” strategy because of the combination of failed projects that were based on mistaken assumptions and the impacts of climate change. NPS led public land managers into the dead end of attempting to re-create historical landscapes. Now NPS will lead public land managers out of that dead end into the reality of a changed environment with a rapidly changing future. Better late than never.


  1. Schuurman, G. W., C. Hawkins Hoffman, D. N. Cole, D. J. Lawrence, J. M. Morton, D. R. Magness, A. E. Cravens, S. Covington, R. O’Malley, and N. A. Fisichelli. 2020. Resist-accept-direct (RAD)—a framework for the 21st-century natural resource manager. Natural Resource Report NPS/NRSS/CCRP/NRR—2020/ 2213. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado. https://doi.org/10.36967/nrr-2283597
  2. Planning for a Changing Climate: Climate-Smart Planning and Management in the National Park Service, NPS, April 2021.  https://toolkit.climate.gov/reports/planning-changing-climate-climate-smart-planning-and-management-national-park-service

Featured Photo from RAD Natural Resource Report.  Photo caption:

“Multiple federal agencies, including the National Park Service (Bandelier National Monument), tribes, and others steward the East Jemez Mountains ecosystem of New Mexico, an ecologically transforming landscape where massive forest die-off is projected to occur more frequently in the future. Piñon pines, normally evergreen, have reddish-brown foliage in October 2002 (left). By May 2004 (right), the dead piñon pines lost all their needles, exposing gray trunks and branches. The photos were taken from the same vantage point near Los Alamos, N.M. Forest drought stress is strongly correlated with tree mortality from poor growth, bark beetle outbreaks, and high-severity fire. Credit: C. Allen, USGS” (1)

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