Machlis’ experience with NPS made him a natural choice when in 2009 the Obama Administration sought to elevate the role of science in park management. The agency was especially concerned with defining its response to climate change. While many climate-imperiled ecosystems and species exist on NPS lands — think wetlands in the Everglades, or pikas
in Glacier — the parks are immobile parcels, incapable of changing shape or location to accommodate climate-induced habitat shifts. What, then, can the agency do?
One answer, says Machlis, is to become a better neighbor. By cooperating with surrounding stakeholders like farmers and other federal agencies, the federal government can better steward wildlife as it’s driven across borders. A prime example is the Path of the Pronghorn
, a protected 120-mile corridor that allows pronghorn to migrate safely from Grand Teton National Park through private lands to their winter range in Wyoming’s Green River Valley. “We have to become better partners with other landowners, to manage parks as cores within a broader matrix of conservation,” Machlis insists.
But changing NPS ideology won’t happen overnight. For decades, parks, and the wildlife within them, have been managed as “vignettes of primitive America,” as ecologist A. Starker Leopold — Aldo’s son — famously put it in a 1963 report
. Fifty years after the Leopold Report was published, Machlis and an advisory group of fellow scientists produced “Revisiting Leopold: Resource Stewardship in the National Parks,” an updated set of recommendations that recasts parks as dynamic places that can help ecosystems, wildlife, and people adapt to changing landscapes and climate. The next phase, says Machlis, is incorporating those recommendations into policy — turning words into actions.
That same spirit animates the work of the Strategic Sciences Group, the body that Machlis helped found in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon
. After Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Northeast in 2012, the SSG reconvened to assess how the Atlantic Coast can improve its hurricane resilience before the next storm. Park Service lands will be crucial to that mission: For instance, the wetlands of Jamaica Bay, an 18,000-acre estuary that’s co-managed by NPS and New York City, could help buffer the city against sea level rise and storm surges.
“Every young person joining NPS right now will spend their career confronting implications of climate change and a dynamic environment,” says Machlis, who last year moved from Idaho to Clemson University, where he serves as professor of environmental sustainability in addition to his work with NPS. “We have to develop policies now that respond effectively to that challenge.”