Logo POLITICAL SCENE August 1997

National Parks: Geology Matters

The need for increased public awareness of the value of geoscience research has become a mantra across our community in this time of tight federal budgets. The recent threat of elimination faced by federal geoscience agencies stemmed largely from a genuine lack of understanding of what they do. Short-term efforts to inform Congress must continue, but long-term support for the geosciences will depend on convincing the public that geology truly matters.

The recent crop of dinosaur and volcano disaster movies that feature climactic scenes in which the hero, in time of crisis, shouts "Get me a geologist!" are great. But we cannot rely on Hollywood to keep delivering the goods -- or much reality for that matter.
So where should our educational efforts begin? Many of us treasure the geologic field trip as our favorite learning experience. The prospect of millions of our fellow citizens voluntarily going on field trips certainly would be a good start! And millions already do. Each year, large numbers of Americans travel to type sections, unique fossil localities, and other prime examples of geology at its most splendid. Our national park system presents a tremendous opportunity for public education about the geosciences, but it is an opportunity largely untapped.

Geology But No Geologists

One big obstacle is the overly low profile held by the geosciences within the National Park Service, which employs only 40 geologists. Compare that to the agency's 900 biologists, a number that was even higher before the creation of the National Biological Survey (now the Biological Resources Division of the U.S. Geological Survey) absorbed many of the Park Service's biological research staff. The scarcity of geoscientists means that in even the most geologically spectacular parks, including the Grand Canyon, none are available to train interpreters, develop educational materials, and provide resource and hazard evaluations.

Fully one quarter of the 374 units in the national park system -- which includes national parks, monuments, seashores, historical parks, recreation areas, and other sites -- were created solely for their geologic qualities, and 140 of the units contain significant geologic features. Geology and the parks should have a special relationship, but where are the geologists?

As an agency within the Department of the Interior, the Park Service relies on geoscientists at the U.S. Geological Survey, whose principal mission is to meet the research and information needs of its sister agencies. This separation of science from management and regulatory functions is, of course, designed to ensure credibility and objectivity. But it can also leave managers and regulators unaware of what scientists have to offer, and scientists unclear about the needs of managers and regulators. Although individual projects have been successful and the relationship should be strengthened, the lack of daily contact and resulting familiarity may limit the arrangement's effectiveness.

Small Steps Forward

The need for better communication between scientists and managers was one of many issues raised by a 1992 National Research Council study titled Science and the National Parks. The report noted scientists' lack of influence among policy-makers and the lack of a coordinated approach to research in support of resource management. In response to the latter criticism, the Park Service created a Natural Resources Program Center to provide scientific assistance in the management and protection of natural resources in the parks.

Geologists in the National Park Service were consolidated into the center's Geologic Resources Division. They are working with geoscience societies to raise awareness of the division's activities and promote collaboration in research and public education.

In partnership with the Geological Society of America (GSA), division geologists have developed a summer internship program that allows undergraduate geoscience students to spend several months in a national park working on research projects, cataloguing collections, or developing interpretive materials. GSA sponsored two internships this summer with matching funds from the division, which is funding several additional internships itself. Projects include developing a paleontological database for Denali National Park in Alaska and working on public education projects at Badlands National Park in South Dakota.

A promising new science scholars program funded by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Canon, and the National Park Foundation invites graduate students in the biological, physical, social, and cultural sciences to investigate specific research topics using the parks as laboratories. Unfortunately, this year's program failed to designate any topics related to the geosciences. Efforts are under way to correct that omission.

A Call for Action

In the November 1995 issue of GSA Today, Paul and Heidi Doss urge academic geoscientists working in national parks to assign a higher priority to educating the public about their research. Although many geoscientists conduct research in units of the national park system, their interaction with park personnel is often limited to filling out an annual investigator's report or collecting permit.

The Dosses suggest ways to incorporate outside scientists into the parks' educational process, working with interpreters and other park staff. They describe their own success in developing training programs at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and Acadia National Park, and argue that such programs can effectively inform the public and Park Service interpreters about geologic research and geology. They point out that these educational efforts "may be the public's first and only direct exposure to taxpayer-funded science."

The call put out by the Dosses should be echoed throughout our community, not just for academic geoscientists but for professional geologists and all others with an interest in increasing public awareness of geology. For example, volunteering to brief interpretive staff on the geologic history and processes at work in a park can make them more comfortable sharing that information with the public.

With a mission focused on preservation rather than multiple use, the national parks have largely been left out of the debates over fossils, mining, and other public lands issues. But the parks represent a very different sort of resource in the form of 268 million visitors a year. Because so many of those visits could represent the geologic field trip of a lifetime, no better opportunity exists for increasing public awareness of the science and capturing the public's imagination.

Gazing over the edge of the Grand Canyon for the first time is as awesome an experience as most people are likely to get. Sciences like astronomy and oceanography have successfully mobilized public support through the "wow," or wonder, factor. It is time for us to do the same.

David Applegate

Director of Government Affairs

American Geological Institute

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