Gary Machlis, conservationist

The first National Parks science advisor calls for adaptation and collaboration in the next 100 years. Interview by Amy McDermott

April 04, 2016

Gary Machlis, science advisor to the director of the U.S. National Park Service. Photo: NPS

The U.S. National Park Service was born a century ago, on August 25, 1916. It was created to protect and manage the country’s 35 national parks. Today, that number has grown to more than 400, stretching across the United States and its territories.

As the service has grown, so has its need for science. But research-based management hasn’t always been prioritized. In the past, it took a back seat to recreation. Visitors were allowed to feed black bears in Yellowstone—the first national park—until the 1960s. Fishermen cast their lines into trout breeding grounds in the Yellowstone River until 1973.

Formally, science in the parks began with collecting expeditions in the vein of Lewis and Clark’s 1804 journey, then evolved into pioneering ecological surveys in the 1920s and 1930s. Park science grew until the late 20th century, when it dramatically—and unpopularly—contracted.

Gary Machlis, a conservation scientist and the first science advisor to the director of the U.S. National Park Service, says park science is bouncing back.

In a talk at the February 2016 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C., Machlis envisioned a future with more scientific collaboration between the park service and other research organizations. He’s also pursuing new parks dedicated to the history of science in the U.S., a nation where “science is civics,” he says. He took time to meet with SciCom’s Amy McDermott to look back—and ahead another 100 years.

What led to your position with the park service? Are you an outdoorsy guy?

I was born and raised in Seattle at the foot of Mt. Rainier. As soon as I got my driver’s license I became interdependent with the outdoors. So I went to the University of Washington and got a forestry degree, and I began to realize that if you want to do conservation, you need to learn about people. [Conservation] is really people management, not just tree management.

So I moved from forestry to human ecology, went back East, and got a Ph.D. at Yale. Then I came back to the West and worked at the University of Idaho. From [the time] of my Ph.D. on, I had been working with the park service, and in Idaho I began to do a lot of social science with them. Eventually the park service said, “Well, since Gary's doing so much work, let’s buy a piece of his time.” So I became the Visiting Chief Social Scientist for the park service.

Then during the 2008 [presidential] campaign, I signed on as one of the environmentalists for Obama. As he became the candidate and then president, I was asked to take on this new job as science advisor. So it was a mix of dedication to the park service and my breadth of experiences. If I had been doing just one thing—my own discipline in my own topic area—I would have been less useful.

How so?

[Because] science advisors have to transcend their own discipline to provide advice across the sciences.

When it functions well, the role is both personal and professional. You can't give scientific advice effectively if the person doesn't have confidence in you. You have to know when to ponder and when to boldly say, “You’ve got to do this.” And you have to know there are four words you can't say: “I told you so.” Because ultimately your advice is just that: advice.

This is our 100th year with the national parks. That's a big deal. How has science evolved in the parks this century?

The science in national parks began by recording these extraordinary landscapes in expeditions. It was freaks-of-nature kind of stuff. But then we owe a great debt to George Melendez Wright from California. In some ways he built the science program of the park service. He was a broad thinker, a field scientist, committed, passionate. He was killed [in 1936] by a drunk driver who hit him. When he died, he took the momentum of the park service science program away.

Over time the science program has expanded. Then [in the 1990s] under [U.S. Secretary of the Interior] Bruce Babbitt it was largely taken and ripped out of the park service and put into the U.S. Geological Survey.

So there was this period of chaos. After that it began to build back again because of the important need we have for science. Right now it’s in a maturing phase. We’re not growing numbers [of scientists] and buildings and laboratories, but we are maturing in the quality of our science.

"Take your children out, and visit a national park now."

What would you like to see in the next 100 years?

I'm not doing the next 100 years [myself], so if you look forward the next 20, I think the scientific community will be confronted by the implications of climate change. No one will escape having to deal with that in their science. The sociologists will have to deal with climate change’s effects on tourism, the ethnographers [will have to deal with] its effects on subsistence use of resources, all the way to [scientists who must deal with] the wildlife, botanical, and atmospheric stuff. No one gets a free pass from climate change in the national parks.

Do you think climate change is the single largest threat to the parks?

It is a prime driver, but I think it would be a mistake to just focus on climate change. There is biodiversity loss, habitat fragmentation, pollution—all these things that can be exacerbated by climate change. It is not a sole threat.

So you wouldn't say climate change is the biggest?

No. I'd be cautious because we have 410 parks across 17 time zones. There is no average park, just like there’s no average visitor. Name me a park and we might be able to figure out its biggest current threat, but for the system as a whole? And even if [climate] was the worst threat, what does that mean for our responsibility? You can't just try to solve the biggest threat and let the next six get you. You have to deal with them all as a system.

Is there anything the public can do to address climate change in the parks?

First, self-educate. Learn what causes climate change, what its impacts are, what its implications are.

The second: as citizens, vote. Climate change, like other major problems, is not separate from the political system. And being active in the political system, in whichever party or action you believe, is something to do.

The third, I would say, is to make personal choices of how you want to be civically engaged. Some may want to cut their consumption and lower their impact personally, others may want to become active and join organizations. There's no one right way to do it.

And the fourth would be to take your children out, and visit a national park now.

In your talk, you mentioned that the national parks are working to recognize scientific achievement in the U.S. What will that look like?

Remember that the national park system includes historic sites: homes, Independence Hall, battlefields, historical buildings. We’re working to make sure in the list of themes that are celebrated in our history, “scientific achievement in the United States” is one of them.

One of our newest parks is Manhattan Project National Historical Park [with properties in Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Hanford, Washington; and Los Alamos, New Mexico], which is all about the building of the atomic bomb. There are all these stories of women scientists and underrepresented groups of scientists that have not been told. And yet they're amazing stories of scientific achievement. We need to commemorate those places and those people.

Can you tell me about one?

Sure. An example was Barbara McClintock. She was largely ignored at first because she was a woman. She persevered. She won the Nobel Prize [in Physiology or Medicine, 1983]. And she made inordinate contributions to our understanding of genetics. She should be recognized.

So her lab or her home would become a national park?

That's right. And the purpose is not just to put a plaque on it. You use these as portals for people to learn about science. We're very excited about the ability to do that.

What's the timeline on a project like that?

A report recommending 12 sites was submitted to the park service a month ago. We hope at least a few are completed during the centennial year and recognized formally as national historical landmarks.

You also mentioned that the future of the parks demands 21st century expedition skills: approaches to field research that leave wilderness intact. What skills are those exactly?

Imagine what would happen if you said we’re going to take an expedition to a park in the Amazon or Papua New Guinea or St. Kitts. It doesn't matter where. And our job was to use every 21st century tool we had available to minimize our impact on the very resources we’re studying. How would you power your field camp? There are cutting-edge solar cells, right? How would you manage your waste, so you could pack it all out at the end? There are modern contemporary containers. People stay in tents. Tents have poles [that mar the ground]. Do they need them? So you would invent new habitats that minimize the impact on the ground.

Expeditions would probably have an environmental compliance and sustainability manager, someone whose job it was to make sure that when the scientists left, they left it pristine. I'm talking about everything from camera equipment to medical supplies to robotics to communications to food waste management and cultural interaction. It would be fascinating to put together an expedition to try out all of the best available technologies and systems to test whether you could have a 21st century expedition.

Do you have a personal favorite memory or moment in the national parks?

Thomas Edison's lab in West Orange, New Jersey, is a national park. It was kept exactly the way it looked—right down to open notebooks and pens—when he died. They have an exhibit of all his inventions, such as the phonograph, and they play them for the guests. So visitors come and they can hear the music from an original Edison phonograph.

I have watched old people in the audience begin to cry from hearing the music played on the old machines, that old crackly vinyl. That taught me the great power of the national parks lies in their authenticity. They’re the real thing.


© 2016 Amy McDermott. To journey through Amy’s writing and multimedia work, visit