National Park Service


Date of this Version



Published in Weber, Samantha, and David Harmon, eds. 2008. Rethinking Protected Areas in a Changing World: Proceedings of the 2007 GWS Biennial Conference on Parks, Protected Areas, and Cultural Sites. Hancock, Michigan: The George Wright Society.


My task is to speak to managing to give nature a chance. The debate: to manage resources, or to leave nature alone. Philosophical debate? Maybe. For my agency (the National Park Service) this debate may strike at our deepest beliefs, our corporate creed, our organizational religion, per se.

If you see Jerry Frielich’s position as saying, “Don’t mess with Mother Nature,” or, as a puritan cleric might say, “Thou shalt not sin,” then I will take the posture of the fire-andbrimstone preacher. “But you have sinned. The earth is a mess, humans, and you are responsible. Look at all that you have done to all of the Gardens of Eden. Out—into the wilderness! Do research, find the path of righteousness. Then you shall manage, and you may carry that burden for eternity.”

Fun, and yes, this is a philosophical argument.

But why should there be a need to manage in a protected area? If a place is protected, then natural processes should be in control. And that’s not a philosophical point. In the national parks, we manage for unimpaired.We manage for wild.

But unimpaired? Are they? A few examples from my own experience:

Grand Canyon and the Colorado River, and managing for natural conditions: What does “natural” mean with the context of an upstream dam? After I transferred to Grand Canyon I was asked to manage NPS involvement in the Glen Canyon Environmental Studies, the interagency research program that brought changes to the operations of Glen Canyon Dam. One of the things I did first was caucus my colleagues from Glen Canyon, Lake Mead, and other National Park Service offices, including national natural resource divisions. When I asked for what we should manage the Colorado River in Grand Canyon, I was told by several colleagues that we should manage for natural conditions. But how—with a dam sitting upstream? The Colorado River is now a cold, sediment-starved river, rather than a warm, sediment-laden one. Its flows are now more defined by within-day variability than by within- and between-year variability. The National Park Service may be successful in seeking to preserve and maintain important fluvial and ecosystem values, but not the natural system that existed pre-dam.