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Goodbye to “Primitive America”: An Interview With Jon Jarvis

National Park Service director Jon Jarvis came to Rocky Mountain National Park on August 24 to join in the BioBlitz. But he also came to release a report, prepared at his request by a committee of scientists, that outlines a new strategy for the Park Service as it approaches its centennial in 2016. Called Revisiting Leopold,...

National Park Service director Jon Jarvis came to Rocky Mountain National Park on August 24 to join in the BioBlitz. But he also came to release a report, prepared at his request by a committee of scientists, that outlines a new strategy for the Park Service as it approaches its centennial in 2016. Called Revisiting Leopold, the report is modeled, right down to its 23-page length, on a 1963 report drafted by ecologist A. Starker Leopold. The Leopold Report became a lodestar for a generation of ecologically minded rangers, including Jarvis—but Jarvis says it no longer fits the world we live in.

Jarvis is well-cast as ranger-in-chief: he’s trim and fit, gray-haired and mustachioed, with sparkling eyes and a good-natured smile even when he’s talking about disturbing trends. A gusty wind probed his ranger hat as we spoke, standing at 11,700 feet on squishy tundra, above the sea of beetle-killed trees that laps all the slopes in the park. In the distance, across Forest Canyon, we could see a couple of shrunken glaciers.

Tell me why the Leopold Report was so important. What was the context when it appeared in 1963?

There was a general concern at the time that we were managing wildlife with old school techniques. Predators were being eliminated. We were particularly efficient at killing mountain lions and wolves and bears.

Leopold stood all that on its head. He said we really shouldn’t be judging one kind of wildlife as good and one as bad, but managing for the ecosystem. Retain all the wildlife and let them act out their normal and natural relationships. Bring fire back into the system. Protect these places as what he called “vignettes of primitive America”— what they would have been when European man showed up on the landscape.

Selecting what the first white men saw as what we’re going to preserve—wasn’t that kind of arbitrary?

Today we understand much more about Native American effects on the environment. The environment that most European settlers saw was a manipulated environment, through Native American fire, Native American control of wildlife, introduction of species. It had already been changed.

Nevertheless, Leopold’s was a good standard to work with. We’ve been using that report for 50 years as really the foundation of the National Parks, to define what we mean by “unimpaired.” Our Organic Act (the 1916 law that established the Park Service) says to manage these places “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

So why is Leopold out of date?

The problem is these parks are changing before our very eyes from anthropogenic influences—climate change, air transport of pollution, exotic species being introduced, habitat fragmentation. They’re all having direct impacts on national parks. To say that you’re going to achieve “unimpaired” by managing to the standards that Leopold gave us is really not accurate anymore.

Is the new report saying it’s not possible to preserve parks as they are?

We can’t freeze them in time. They are going to change. And we need to manage that change using the precautionary principle—in other words, being as conservative as possible. Be cautious in any decision that you make about retaining all the parts.

And the second piece is—Leopold confined his recommendations to the park itself. What this team says is you need to think of the park as the anchor within a larger ecosystem. The parks are too small to be an entire ecosystem, and therefore you need to think and act at the ecosystem scale, looking at the park as the core of that.

What would be a good example of a Park Service policy that might change under the new standard?

One of my favorite examples is our control of exotic species. If you take the framework of “vignettes of primitive America,” that means the species that were here when Europeans showed up are the only species that we would allow to be here. We would not allow any species to migrate in.

Under the new, revised Leopold, we are recognizing that climate change is driving species to seek refuge in environments where they can persist. Under the old policy, if a species shows up here in this park that is driven here by climate change, we would still treat it as an exotic and eliminate it. But it might be its last refuge, the only place it can survive into the future. We need to be willing to embrace it.

What if giant sequoias leave Sequoia National Park, or Joshua Trees leave Joshua Tree National Park…

Or glaciers melt in Glacier National Park?

Would you ever consider decommissioning a park?

No. Very few of these parks were set aside for one reason. They’re set aside for multiple reasons. It would be a tragic loss to lose a keystone species, but I don’t see decommissioning as a result of that.

Even in order to recommission elsewhere? Some Australian researchers suggested recently we could just sell off a few parks that aren’t doing much in terms of biodiversity conservation, and use the money elsewhere to better effect.

Not on my watch.

Not on your watch because…?

I think that’s very shortsighted. I don’t believe that we’ve set aside enough areas. In this country we have a lot of lands that are in agriculture, a lot that are in private hands, and they’re being managed for the economic benefit of this country—that’s fantastic. But we also need lands that are managed for their ecosystem value. Even if that ecosystem is changing, that doesn’t devalue them.

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Meet the Author

Robert Kunzig
Robert Kunzig is Senior Environment Editor for National Geographic magazine.