How scientific research can inform visitor and environmental management at National Parks

How Scientific Research Can Inform Visitor and Environmental Management at National Parks
Researchers examined how science and the parks can serve each other better.

By Patty Guerra, UC Merced

National Parks are magnificent landscapes where the public can go for sightseeing and recreation. They also are research labs – gorgeous, awe-inspiring and wild research labs, to be sure. And the science conducted there can help ensure that the parks’ natural beauty will be available for generations of people to come and enjoy, and also support local and national issues calling for sustainable management.

Researchers at UC Merced examined the relationship between science and the parks and how both can serve each other better.

Yosemite, like other national parks in the United States, has two challenging and at times conflicting goals: preserving their natural beauty while providing for public recreation. Part of balancing those two priorities is achieved by having access to relevant scientific knowledge, while the remainder depends on the practical application of park science.

Recent UC Merced doctoral graduate Felber Arroyave and Management of Complex Systems professors Jeffrey Jenkins and Alexander Petersen published two papers exploring the impact of science policy on knowledge management and other systems-level dimensions of the National Park System (NPS) by applying methods of machine learning, network analytics and management science.

The first paper, produced in collaboration with Steve Shackelton, UC Merced’s National Parks Institute Director, and Breezy Jackson, Director of the UC Natural Reserve System’s Yosemite Field Station and UC Merced’s Sequoia National Park field station, analyzes the impact of the National Park Science Policy on the provision of academic knowledge.

The researchers collected official records from the NPS “Research Permit and Reporting System” – what Petersen described as a sort of matchmaking website where parks can share their needs and researchers can apply for permits to address the projects – to identify details about each park’s situation.

How Scientific Research Can Inform Visitor and Environmental Management at National Parks
By analyzing data, researchers can better determine which projects are needed.

With this data at hand, the researchers then developed a framework for evaluating research alignment by measuring the degree to which the scientific needs of national parks parallel the supply of corresponding knowledge produced in academic journals. Specifically, they applied a machine learning algorithm to a comprehensive sample of documents relating to specific park – namely, official needs statements produced by each park, and scientific research associated with each park – to identify a joint space of topics.

By integrating methods of data science and analytics, this approach facilitates quantifying the direction and degree of research alignment across the entire NPS and provides a framework that emerging park systems globally can adopt and adapt.

“There’s a fundamental mismatch in the provision and use of scientific information to inform decision-making at the parks for them to be able to meet their mandates,” Jenkins said. “We have to co-manage for the protection of the environment and facilitating visitation to parks, lest they not be recognized and people don’t see the value of them.”

The researchers found that overall, there is a high degree of research alignment, though some areas are over-researched relative to the apparent demand for knowledge in the given area, which could be inefficient from the park system’s perspective.

In the second paper, Arroyave, Jenkins and Petersen examined how individual parks are viewed across the system by analyzing roughly 423,000 news media articles; 11,000 research publications; and 60,000 species that inhabit the parks.

“In this approach, we are trying to develop novel perspectives in terms of what’s important for research, visitation and management – and not only for each individual park but also for the collective,” Arroyave said. “Part of the important thing here is thinking of the national parks as a system. By analyzing the system through news media and research production, we can identify park-park relationships that are not merely predestined by their fixation in geographic space. “

The impacts of science on the parks are myriad, ranging from ensuring the preservation of endangered species to allocating the correct number of visitors passes to allow people to enjoy the parks while limiting any possible damage to what makes them special.

“There’s an increasing role for and need to understand the connections of scientific knowledge between parks and universities,” Jenkins said. “We want to put protections in these places that are legally defensible. We put forth management programs that limit and shift use in certain ways to reduce impact on Yosemite’s visitor access.”

UC Merced’s proximity to Yosemite has been invaluable to both partners.

“UC Merced represents a valuable interface between Yosemite and the UC system, which is an industrial scale knowledge producer,” Petersen said.

“It’s neat to frame the science as the foundation that kind of underpins the protections of our park system,” Jenkins said. “Parks are only as good as the socially arrived upon support that we collectively attribute to them.”

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