Conservation Professor Applies His Science to National Parks

National Park Service

Gary Machlis, of the U. of Idaho, is science adviser to the director of the National Park Service.
March 07, 2010

Washington, D.C., might seem like an unnatural habitat for a conservationist like Gary E. Machlis, who has spent a career trekking through national parks in search of ways to combat both man-made and natural threats.

But Mr. Machlis, a professor of conservation at the University of Idaho, landed a dream job in September, when he became the first full-time science adviser to the director of the National Park Service.

In that role, he expects, among other things, to study how to protect the parks from the effects of climate change and suggest new ways to use them as interdisciplinary laboratories for academic researchers and budding scientists.

The Obama administration "has an extraordinary commitment to elevating the role of science in decision making and making sure that science contributes in very tangible ways to wise and strong conservation," says Mr. Machlis, who is 58.

His initiation to the job included a five-month tour of 12 national parks, from Glen Echo Park, in Maryland, to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. At each stop, he taught local youngsters about conservation, met with local scientists, and lectured at or visited a nearby university.

Mr. Machlis will keep his position at Idaho, where he has also taught courses in human ecology and environmental-science policy. His salary and benefits will be paid by the park service through the government's Intergovernmental Personnel Act.

Jonathan B. Jarvis, the agency's director, calls his adviser "a proven leader and innovator within the scientific community." Mr. Machlis was one of the leaders of a study unit at Idaho that conducts visitor surveys and economic studies for the park service, including some of the parks Mr. Jarvis oversaw as an administrator in the Pacific Northwest. The two men have known each other for more than two decades.

Mr. Jarvis wanted his adviser to be "someone who had walked in both worlds, who had high credibility in the scientific community and knew how to tap into universities' research capacities and guide and inspire students." He also wanted someone who could apply that research and help field managers make hard decisions, he says.

After receiving bachelor's and master's degrees in forestry from the University of Washington, Mr. Machlis earned a doctorate in human ecology at Yale University. When he hiked through parts of New England, he says, the "jaw-dropping beauty of New Hampshire foliage" and other discoveries helped awaken him from his Pacific Northwest provincialism:

"All of the hiking and camping I did as a boy set the fire, but I think it's valuable as a graduate student and young scientist to work in as many ecosystems as possible. Each one teaches you something."

William McLaughlin, dean of the College of Natural Resources at the University of Idaho, has worked with Mr. Machlis for three decades, since they traveled to China to teach a course on parks and protected areas. Mr. Machlis worked in China again, in the 1980s, with the World Wildlife Fund's Giant Panda Project.

"He has one foot solidly planted in the Northwest, where a lot of our premier parks are, but he also has another foot planted in the political sphere of Washington, D.C.," Mr. McLaughlin says.

"His entire career has focused on trying to understand the interface between human ecosystems and biophysical ecosystems in and around the parks," the dean says. In the case of the fires that burned more than a third of Yellowstone National Park in 1988, for instance, "it means walking that line between using science to say, 'Let's let the fires burn there because it's important for the ecosystem,' versus putting them out because visitors think that's what we need to do," Mr. McLaughlin explains.

Over the past three decades, Mr. Machlis has conducted conservation studies in more than 130 national parks, including the Everglades, the Statue of Liberty, and Yellowstone, and has received $12.8-million in grants and contracts, nearly all from the park service.

Referring to the title of a popular PBS series, Mr. Machlis says, "If the national parks are, as Ken Burns says, America's best idea, the scientific community has a real opportunity and challenge to preserve them unimpaired for future generations."