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)

“Restoring” vegetation does not restore an ecosystem

One of the persistent questions in our interminable debate with native plant advocates is whether or not native vegetation provides superior habitat for wildlife compared to existing non-native vegetation.  At the heart of that question is the closely related question of whether or not more insects are found in native vegetation than in non-native vegetation.  That’s because insects (and other arthropods) are near the bottom of the food web.  If there are fewer insects, there are probably fewer birds and other animals that eat insects. We have told our readers about many studies that find equal abundance and diversity of insects in native compared to non-native vegetation, so we won’t repeat them, but here’s a brief list of those studies and links to them for new readers:

Does “restoration” of native vegetation increase insect populations?

Arthropods - Creative Commons Share Alike
Arthropods – Creative Commons Share Alike

In this post we will consider this issue from a slightly different angle:  can insect population or diversity be increased by “restoration” of native vegetation?  Even if we accept the premise of native plant advocates that native vegetation supports greater abundance and diversity of insects, can that population be “restored” by eradicating non-native vegetation and replacing it with native vegetation?  That question is answered with a resounding “NO” by a study that compared arthropod abundance and diversity in undisturbed (predominantly native vegetation), disturbed (predominantly non-native vegetation), and disturbed sites 5 and 15 years after restoration. (1) Restoration methods described in the study are mowing followed by disking and seeding, disking and seeding, planting of container stock, and clearance by hand.  All sites were irrigated initially.  No mention is made of herbicide use or prescribed burns to eradicate non-native vegetation. The vegetation type in all 15 sites in Southern California was coastal sage scrub.  This is the dominant vegetation type along the coast of California and is the goal of many restoration projects in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Many species of both native and non-native vegetation in the study sites also exist in the Bay Area.

Coastal sage scrub in Southern California - Creative Commons Share Alike
Coastal sage scrub in Southern California – Creative Commons Share Alike

The study used pitfall traps to collect arthropods in these sites.  Arthropods are invertebrates that include insects, arachnids (spiders), and crustaceans (aquatic species not relevant to this study).  Arthropods are further divided into guilds such as herbivores, predators, scavengers, and parasites.  Because of the method of collecting in pitfall traps, few herbivores were found. Here are some of the findings of this study:

  • “Arthropod diversity at undisturbed and disturbed sites was greater than at sites that were 5 and 15 years following restoration.”
  • “Number of arthropod species was not significantly different among undisturbed, disturbed, and restored sites.”
  • “Vegetation at disturbed and undisturbed sites differed significantly; older restorations did not differ significantly from undisturbed in diversity, percent cover, or structural complexity.”
  • “Vegetation characteristics did not differ significantly between the newly restored site and disturbed sites.”
  • “…arthropod communities at all restored sites were, as a group, significantly different from both disturbed and undisturbed sites.”
  • “As found in other studies of other restoration sites, arthropod communities are less diverse and have altered guild structure.”

Here is the concluding discussion of this study:

“Of the restoration sites sampled, none had developed an arthropod community that resembled undisturbed or disturbed native coastal sage scrub. Restoration sites in general exhibited lower arthropod diversity and a preponderance of exotic arthropod species. The time elapsed since revegetation effort had no discernible effect on arthropod community structure; there was no gradual return of the community to a more natural structure over time”.

 “Restorations” do not improve arthropod abundance or diversity

This study found that arthropod population and diversity was the same in disturbed (non-native) and undisturbed (native) vegetation.  When disturbed vegetation was “restored” arthropod population was maintained but the composition of the arthropod community was significantly changed even 15 years after the restoration was completed.  There were more “exotic” species of arthropods in the restored sites even though the vegetation was similar to the undisturbed sites of native vegetation.  The restored vegetation was native, but its arthropod occupants weren’t.

However, the birds and other animals that prey on those insects don’t care if the insects are native or non-native.  Much like humans, animals are not concerned with the nativity of their food.  The non-native apple you are eating is just as tasty whether you are eating it in its native range in Central Asia or where it has been introduced.  If you have an apple tree, you know the birds and squirrels enjoy the apples too and the bees and other pollinators enjoy the apple blossoms.   Most of what we eat is not native, yet many people are obsessed with the nativity of vegetation, claiming that animals require native vegetation even though humans don’t.

An important caveat

The predominant vegetation type in the San Francisco Bay Area is coastal scrub, which is also the vegetation type in the study of arthropod populations.  This suggests that if a similar study were conducted here, the results might be similar.  However, there is one very important difference between the restorations studied in Southern California and the restorations in the Bay Area.   Land managers in the San Francisco Bay Area are using large amounts of herbicides to destroy non-native vegetation.  The study in Southern California reports no herbicide use in restoration sites. It seems likely that herbicides sprayed in restoration projects in the Bay Area would decrease the population of arthropods.  We would like to see a study that tests that hypothesis. 

There is more to an ecosystem than plants

The veneration of native plants has become a national obsession.  Demands for eradication of non-native plants are supported by many fictions to justify these destructive projects.  One of those fictions is that wildlife requires native vegetation.  We have found no empirical evidence to support that assumption.   The study we are reporting today is yet more evidence that restoring native plants does not restore an ecosystem. In this case, after 15 years of effort, land managers were eventually successful in establishing a population of native plants.  However, these “restored” native landscapes did not support a population of insects and spiders that were comparable to either the undisturbed native landscape or the unrestored non-native landscape.  We have been looking for some legitimate reason to engage in these destructive projects for over 15 years.  We have yet to find any justification for spraying our public lands with herbicides or destroying hundreds of thousands of healthy trees.  We will keep looking.


(1)    Travis Longcore, “Terrestrial Arthropods as Indicators of Ecological Restoration Success in Coastal Sage Scrub (California, USA),” Restoration Ecology, December 2003, Vol. 11 No 4, pp.397-409