19th Annual Stegner Center Symposium
The 19th annual Stegner Center Symposium, “National Parks: Past, Present, and Future,” celebrated the nearly 100 years since President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Parks Act of 1916. On March 27 and 28, 2014, an esteemed group of resource managers, scientists, authors, and academics gathered at the Salt Lake City Public Library to reflect on the current status of what conservationist, author and educator Wallace Stegner (the namesake of the Stegner Center) once described as “the best idea we ever had”— the national park system.
The symposium assembled a collection of high-caliber speakers, who as a group focused not only on the history of the national parks, but also provided ideas about how parks and park management might evolve in the future. Environmental historian Mark Fiege, the opening speaker, explored the history of the parks and how, as the parks have grown and our understanding of the environment has matured, management of the parks has shifted from a theory of absolutist conservation — man over nature — to a more inclusive, holistic approach he referred to as, “elegant conservation,” a theme that many of the speakers also touched upon over the course of the two-day event.
One of those speakers was Gary Machlis, Science Advisor to the Director of the National Park Service. Machlis first led the audience through an evaluation of what has come to be called the Leopold Report, named in honor of Starker Leopold, the celebrated scientist who chaired the committee responsible for the report. As Machlis recounted, this report has played a significant role in directing national park management for the past 50 years. In 2012, a new NPS chartered committee revisited and updated the Leopold report, concluding that today’s parks must be managed with “prudence and restraint” using the “best available and sound science” to make decisions that have “the long-term public interest” in mind.
The first day of the symposium concluded with the highly anticipated keynote address by Jon Jarvis, Director of the National Park Service. “The National Parks idea is a uniquely American idea,” Director Jarvis said. “They are the Declaration of Independence applied to the landscape, and highlight the values that bind us together as people.” Jarvis then offered the crowd his “field guide of American values as found in the National Parks” and conducted a virtual tour of many of the nation’s 401 National Parks and the values they represent.
Many of the places Director Jarvis described in his presentation are not the sites that commonly come to mind when thinking of our national parks. The value of independence, he noted, is expressed through the White House and Independence Hall, both of which are part of the National Park System. The value of equality is remembered at National Battlefield Park in Manassas; civil rights at National History Trail, Selma to Montgomery; equality at Women’s Rights National Park in Seneca Fall, NY; and democracy at Federal Hall, the Statue of Liberty, and Ellis Island in New York City. These values, Jarvis said, “are the values that bring us together as a nation and are reflected in our National Parks, the things that make us uniquely American.”
The symposium’s second day commenced with science on climate change. Healy Hamilton, lead scientist at NatureServe, a network of public-private organizations operating across the United States that provide a scientific basis for effective conservation action, explained how to think like a park manager by analyzing current climate change evidence to help manage the potential changes that will impact the environment in the future. “The National Parks are not on the sidelines of this issue,” Hamilton stated. “Out of all the federal agencies, the parks are taking a leadership role in how to confront climate change.” She explained that the National Park Service’s leadership role is reflected in efforts such as the Climate Change Response program that is working aggressively to deal with the effects of climate change and what that means for the parks in terms of changing temperatures reflected in higher highs and lower lows, changing precipitation patterns, such as wetter winters and drier summers, and how these changes are currently and will continue to effect biodiversity and ecosystems within the parks.
The second day of the symposium concluded with a local perspective on national parks. Utah is home to five parks—Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Zion. Panelists Kate Cannon of Southeast Utah National Parks, Ashley Korenblat of Western Spirit Cycling, Vicki Varela from the Utah Office of Tourism, and David Nimkin from the National Parks Conservation Association, discussed the particular challenges and opportunities facing Utah’s natural treasures. “[Protecting open spaces] is a complex situation, particularly in Utah, because of the historic dissonance over land use,” said Vicki Varela. “The good news is that Utahns are unifying around the fact that Mother Nature played favorites with her natural resources.” The “Big 5” as Varela referred to Utah’s national parks, are a major economic driver in the state. David Nimkin put the economic benefits of Utah’s national parks in context when he discussed the nearly $14 million that was lost collectively across the five parks during the government shutdown in October of 2013. Nimkin said that those losses played an important role in motivating Governor Gary Herbert and NPS Director Jarvis to strike a deal to reopen Utah’s parks before the shutdown officially ended. Nimkin also reviewed many of the other substantial challenges facing Utah’s parks including air quality, energy development, mining, and climate change.
Shortly after the curtain fell on the event’s final presentation, a tired but happy Professor Robert Keiter, director of the Stegner Center and the chair of this year’s symposium, reflected: “As we approach the 2016 centennial of our national park system, I wanted to create a forum to explore how the system has evolved over the past 100 years and to gain a better understanding of the management challenges ahead in the face of changing demographics, climate changes, and development pressures. Our speakers accomplished this by drawing upon their diverse and extensive experience to discuss the critical scientific, political, economic, and legal issues facing the parks and to highlight the opportunities to continue expanding the system to meet tomorrow’s needs.”
Through an inspiring combination of analysis and interpretation, personal anecdotes, and images of stunning landscapes, the 18 presentations that made up this year’s symposium examined and attempted to clarify the many challenges the National Park Service must confront and overcome. As noted by presenters, these challenges include seasonal visitation pressures, competing and often incompatible recreational demands, intense political and economic pressures from adjoining communities, potentially destructive external development activities (including climate change), an aging and non-diverse visitor pool, and diminished financial support. And yet another issue is whether, and how, the system should grow in the future. Director Jarvis summed up the collective feeling of the event by saying, “The first century of the National Parks was about bringing the people to the parks. The challenge of the new century will be bringing the parks to the people. We must rise to the challenge of the new century while continuing the best traditions of the past.”
“The National Parks idea is a uniquely American idea. They are the Declaration of Independence applied to the landscape, and highlight the values that bind us together
– Jon Jarvis,
National Park Service