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Protecting the Legacy of Our National Parks

As the National Park Service turns 100, a new institute at Duke is primed to play an important supporting role, explains renowned conservationist Stuart Pimm.

A new institute located at Duke will work to protect U.S. national parks.

As the National Park Service turns 100 this week, Stuart Pimm has special reason to celebrate.

Pimm, the Doris Duke Professor of Conservation Ecology at Duke, is lead science adviser for the Park Institute of America, a new independent nonprofit that recently formed at Duke.  

For Pimm, who helped recruit the institute to Duke, the new venture represents the latest milestone in a career devoted to conservation -- and the latest expression of a lifelong love of national parks.

“The national parks are spectacular places, full of beauty and biological richness,” Pimm says.

“There’s a problem, however. Many of our parks don’t have the financial support we think they deserve.”

 Standing on a trail in Duke Forest, Pimm describes the threats faced by national parks, including climate change, shrinking biodiversity, encroaching development and inadequate resources to support facilities and staff. As he talks, a few notes sound in the branches overhead and Pimm pauses to listen.

“That’s an Eastern Bluebird,” he says with a smile, before returning to the topics of biodiversity and the importance of national parks as buffers against climate change.

PImm is at ease moving back and forth between the natural world and the worlds of science and policy. The author of more than 300 scientific papers and four books, he studies present-day extinctions and global patterns of habitat loss. That work has taken him to Africa to study the fate of elephants and lions and to such biodiversity hotspots as the Florida Everglades and the tropical forests of South America. He has testified before Congress and currently consults with colleagues in China to advise on the establishment of a national parks system in that country.

Pimm says the new parks institute will give Duke students opportunities to work on the frontlines of conservation.

“What we offer at Duke is an exceptional group of undergraduate and graduate students who have a great deal of passion for solving the world’s environmental problems,” Pimm says. “I’m delighted that we’re able to engage the park institute on problems that are so real and practical and significant.”

Duke alumna Tracy Swartout, deputy superintendent of Mount Rainier National Park, says she’s excited by the potential, too.

“I think the institute is intriguing, particularly given the strong connection that already exists between Duke and the National Park Service,” Swartout says.

Swartout studied at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment before being recruited by the park service. In her 17 years working in the national parks system, she has hired many Nicholas School graduates.

“Managing a national park is like managing a small city,” Swartout says. “We have historic landmarks, ecologists, park planners, lawyers, folks who do interpretation and education, folks who do engineering, drinking water plans and more.

“I could see many places where Duke students could get real-world experience while helping the park service meet its needs.”

Those needs are extensive, says Maureen Finnerty, who chairs the nonprofit Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, an organization comprised of former park service employees. The coalition partnered with the Nicholas School to launch the new institute.

Before taking the helm of the coalition, Finnerty spent 33 years working for the park service, including stints as supervisor at Olympic and Everglades national parks.

“The parks are threatened by climate change, by development, by pressures for uses that may not be appropriate,” Finnerty says. “They’re not going to survive unless we can convince more people of their value.”

Glacial retreat in Denali National Park over the last 100 years (Top image by S.R. Capps, USGS; Bottom image by National Park Service.)

Convincing people of the national parks’ value is the ultimate mission of the new institute, Finnerty says, once fundraising and staff recruitment are complete.

For Pimm, it’s a critical message.

“The national parks bring in an amazing amount of money into local economies,” he says. “So even if you just thought about the national parks in purely economic terms, you would conclude that they are a very, very good idea indeed.”

Economics offer just one measure of the national parks’ value, of course. As the National Park Service enters its second century, Pimm hopes more people will come to appreciate the biological, cultural and even spiritual significance of our country’s national parks. And he hopes the parks’ centennial  celebration yields action and advocacy on their behalf.

“They are places that inspire us, places where we get refreshed by being in nature,” Pimm says.

“I think we need to make a better case that our parks need more resources, more love, more attention; we need more of them. And I think this centenary year is a way of celebrating all the things national parks do for us.”


Learn More: Hear Stuart Pimm discuss national parks on WUNC's  "The State of Things" Thursday, Aug. 25, at noon ET.