Gary Machlis: A Career
Defined by Crossing Boundaries

While most researchers spend their lives honing in on their academic niche, Gary Machlis '79 Ph.D. has spent his working in an array of disparate fields.
In the spring of 2010, soon after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig sunk in the Gulf of Mexico — leaving 11 dead and a slick the size of South Carolina in its wake — Gary Machlis ’79 Ph.D. got a call from his boss. Machlis serves as science advisor to Jonathan Jarvis, director of the U.S. National Park Service (NPS); in the aftermath of the spill, Jarvis was doing double duty as the Department of Interior’s Incident Commander. Jarvis had called with an urgent request: Could Machlis fly to the Gulf and figure out how to study the disaster’s effects on the region’s ecology, economy, and communities?
Gary Machlis at work on the Deepwater Horizon scientific response.
To handle the immense job, Machlis drew inspiration from an unlikely source: the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a U.S. intelligence agency that formed during World War II and was a forerunner to the modern CIA. The OSS was perhaps the first truly interdisciplinary government agency — its activities ran the gamut from conducting espionage to developing gadgetry — and Machlis, who had learned of the OSS during his time at Yale, thought it could provide a model for his spill response team. He even spoke with OSS veterans to learn about conducting research during a crisis.
Soon after Jarvis’ call, Machlis and his brand-new team, later dubbed the Strategic Sciences Group (SSG), were in the Gulf. “We weren’t worrying about publishing studies in a journal nine months later,” Machlis recalls. “We were delivering results to leadership every day, so that they could make science-informed decisions.”
If drawing inspiration from an antediluvian war agency sounds like a strange course for an environmental scientist, Gary Machlis — who will receive an F&ES Distinguished Alumni Award on Oct. 11 — is no ordinary scholar. While most researchers spend their lives honing in on their academic niche, Machlis has spent his working in an array of disparate fields. As Machlis puts it: “My career has been defined by a constant broadening.”
That career began with a book. Machlis, a Seattle native, was teaching at a state college in Bellingham, Wash., when he stumbled upon Daydreams and Nightmares, William Burch’s book-length essay on the American environment. Daydreams and Nightmares, says Machlis, “lit me on fire. I said, ‘I need to go study with this guy. Where is he?’”
Burch was at the Yale School of Forestry [now F&ES]. There, under Burch’s tutelage, Machlis began crossing academic boundaries — his dissertation tackled the relationship between energy flow and social justice — at a time when the concept of interdisciplinary studies was in its infancy. Even after graduating from F&ES, Machlis refused to be pigeonholed. From his joint posts as professor of conservation at the University of Idaho and chief social scientist at NPS, he both taught courses and conducted research in over 130 national parks, focused mostly on improving visitors’ experiences. He’s also devoted his time to projects from giant panda conservation in China to improving science capacity in Haiti, and his writing has touched on subjects from urban ecology to the sociology of natural disasters. 
We have to become better partners with other landowners, to manage parks as cores within a broader matrix of conservation.
— Gary Machlis
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.”

About the Author

Ben Goldfarb is a 2013 graduate of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, where he served as editor of Sage Magazine. He is a Seattle-based correspondent for High Country News, a magazine that covers environmental issues throughout the American West.

PUBLISHED: October 10, 2014
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles posted prior to July 1, 2020, refer to the School's name at that time.