Saturday, March 8, 2008

Of Geologists, Paleontologists, And Science in the National Park System

Be sure to check out Kurt Repanshek's new article "Of Geologists, Paleontologists, And Science in the National Park System" over on the National Parks Traveler website. This is a great article that discusses many issues, possibly ignited by the changes taking place at Dinosaur National Monument:

And now core ops is overhauling -- some might say dismantling -- the staff at Dinosaur National Monument by doing away with staff and outsourcing research. Superintendent Risser says a core ops analysis led to her decision to do away with two of the three individuals in the monument's paleontology division. That decision has led folks to pillory both Superintendent Risser and Dan Chure, the staff paleontologist left on board. The heated debate, captured in the comments to previous Traveler posts on the matter, have been highly emotional, spawned some personal attacks, and at times taken on a "he said, (s)he said" diatribe.

Already the core ops process has slimmed down other divisions at Dinosaur, cutting roughly $700,000 from Superintendent Risser's budget, and the additional two positions identified to be eliminated from the paleontology division should save about another $200,000, when benefits are factored in. Some of that savings, the superintendent tells me, will pay for more research in the monument via the Cooperative Ecosystem Study Unit system the Park Service created with universities around the country.

"What we've found is that one dollar put into a CESU gets us $32 in research. Putting some money aside, putting it into an agreement with a university, we can generate much, much more research than we would just through staff personnel," says Superintendent Risser.

Too, the monument needs to invest in more than just paleontology, she says, pointing to fisheries research, river research, botany, resource protection and on and on. And with incredibly tight budgets, the park has to make concessions, according to the superintendent. Already many of the staff are doing two jobs, and obvious savings no longer exist.

"I completely understand the frustration of being told your job is going away," says Superintendent Risser. "I understand that completely. I can imagine how hard that is to hear, because I know how hard it was to tell people that. It's not something I wanted to do. That's not why I got into the Park Service.

"... We truly aren't the heartless people that we come across as being," the superintendent says....

To Dr. Soukup, who set up the CESU program, trimming Dinosaur's paleontology division to one person who will oversee outside researchers will not allow that vision to come to fruition.

"The job of assembling and making sense and building that knowledge base over time is not going to be done by professors who come and go and researchers that are project-oriented," he says. "You’ve got to have people on site for good parts of their career, really digesting and assimilating and translating all of the information into a usable body of science that you can take to the daily management of the park. If you short-change that, you’re never going to become really careful, thoughtful, and knowledgeable enough I think to really manage well.”

While Dr. Soukup sympathizes with Superintendent Risser's fiscal plight and the added responsibilities the monument has taken on as it has grown from an 80-acre reservation dedicated entirely to fossils to more than 200,000 acres with a range of resource issues, he believes the Park Service should respond not by whittling away and outsourcing science but by responding with financial resources.

"I would argue that the Park Service budget is not where it should be and it’s really suffered in the last five or six or seven years because the cost-of-living increases and the fixed costs have not been budgeted. It’s been sort of a starvation period for parks, and a lot of parks have had to cut back," he says, adding that the agency's interpretive division has suffered greatly...."

Be sure to check the entire article out.

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