The Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory, at Colorado State University, has been tapped to help design and implement a unique program which will measure the health of national parks across the United States.

The State of the Parks program, the first of its kind in this country, is being developed by the National Parks Conservation Association and the Natural Trust for Historic Preservation to provide an objective, systemic assessment of the condition of the national parks' natural and cultural resources. The three-phase, four-year project will include teams of researchers, ecologist and graduate students from several universities who will develop a ranking system to assess resource health in individual parks, compare these conditions among national park units and regions and communicate these findings to the American public and Congress.

"The goal is to determine patterns of preservation and degradation of our natural and cultural resources nationwide," said Mark Peterson, project manager for the National Park Conservation Association, based in Fort Collins, CO. "We then develop this information into a 'vital signs' chart, which will allow us to regularly monitor the park's health and advocate for improved stewardship where necessary."

The program is patterned after the ecological assessment project conducted by Parks Canada, in that country's 39 national parks. The project has shown "significant to severe" ecological stresses in 31 of Canada's parks, including such world-renowned parks as Banff, Jasper and Waterton National parks. In 13 of these parks, the stresses had increased in intensity since 1992.

"One of the important roles of national parks is to serve as benchmarks against which we can monitor environmental change," Peterson said. "By careful monitoring, we can detect and come to understand how society's actions are changing the landscape slowly, but in very detectable ways."

Following the National Park Service's geographical designations, the United States will be carved into seven survey regions: Alaska, Midwest, Northeast, Pacific West, Intermountain, Southeast and National Capital. Once indicators have been selected by local scientist and park staff, data will be collected by graduate students and advised by a project manager and assistants. A number of indicators will be selected that define the state of the park's health: air and water quality, wildlife, natural processes, threats and stresses and cultural resources contained in a park, such as museum collections, historic buildings, archaeological and ethnographic resources.

"The mission of the National Park System is to protect and preserve the integrity of America's natural and cultural heritage and to encourage prudent use of these invaluable, but often fragile resources," said Tom Stohlgren, ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, stationed at Colorado State's NREI, and the lead principal investigator. "Until now, there has been no standardized index of natural and cultural resources preservation for the NPS. Our research team will design the framework for assessing the multiple stresses to park units, such as loss of biodiversity, invasive species, contaminants, boundary development, altered fire frames and degradation of cultural resources (historic structures, archaeological sties, historic landscapes). We hope that these rankings will be assessed and published every five years to provide a perspective on how these resources are being preserved and protected."

Phase I consists of developing and testing a methodology for assessing four pilot park units. Those park units are Adams Nation Historic Park, In Massachusetts; Point Reyes National Seashore, in California; Glacier-Waterton International Peace Park, in Montana and Rocky Mountain National Park, in Colorado.

Phase II will cover the next two years. The six regional teams will be devoted to extensive surveying and measuring, collecting consistent data and compiling it into regional level reports. From these reports, recommendations will be made at the park unit and regional level.

Phase III will synthesize the findings from 50 park units to reveal nationwide ecosystem trends and degradation patterns based on the regional reports. Monitoring recommendations at the national level will be made on these trends. Findings will be made available to the public, national park managers and to Congress.

Principal investigators from Colorado State include Stohlgren and Dan Binkley, a professor in the Forest Science Department of the College of Natural Resources. Other team members include Greg Newman, project manager, and Michelle Lee, assistant project manager, both of the NREL, and strong support from Peterson and the NPCA and the NPS.

The National Park System consists of 379 park, containing over half the nation's biological diversity and a vast collection of this country's most culturally significant structures, archaeological sites and landscapes.

The National Park Conservation Association is America's only private, nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated solely to protecting, preserving and enhancing the National Park System. NPCA was founded in 1919 and today has more than 400,000 members.

The National Parks Conservation Association is the nations' leading organization working to save America's historic environments and foster an appreciation for the diverse character and meaning of our cultural heritage.

Established in 1916, the National Park Service was created by and act of Congress to "conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment for the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

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