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Our National Parks Amidst Global Change

As the National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary, UNLV professor Scott Abella explores the conservation challenges officials face.

Research  |  Sep 13, 2016  |  By Dan Michalski
A hiker descends the Angels Landing route in Zion National Park

A hiker descends the Angels Landing route in Zion National Park. (NPS/Caitlin Ceci)

Editor's Note: 

Scott Abella, an assistant professor in the School of Life Sciences at UNLV, is quickly becoming one of the nation’s foremost authorities on the National Park Service and the many challenges it faces in protecting and maintaining America’s “crown jewels.” On Sept. 14, Abella will present the University Forum lecture Conserving America's National Parks During an Era of Global Change. The event is free and open to the public.


When President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation creating the agency that became the National Park Service a century ago, there were nine national parks. Today the NPS manages 59 national parks and hundreds of other important publically owned treasures, among them national recreation areas, seashores, monuments, scenic highways, scenic riverways, historic sites, prehistoric sites, battlefields, and other federally protected parcels.

From the beginning, the Park Service’s job has been "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Fulfilling this mandate has never been easy, but today’s challenges seem particularly daunting: overcrowding, climate change, invasive non-native plant species, fires, flooding, and disparities between predators and prey.

To tell the story, Scott Abella, an assistant professor in the School of Life Sciences at UNLV, parsed through thousands of academic papers and documents, conducted interviews with park rangers and staff, and rummaged through old files of different park properties. His first book, Conserving America’s National Parks, includes more than 250 photos and dozens of maps, charts, graphs, and tables.

Abella says his aim was to help readers see how conservation and restoration work has continually assisted in the maintenance of parks’ wild and scenic character. He includes examples from the very earliest of projects to the frontlines of today’s work, such as the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone, the intentional removal of non-native plants and python snakes in the Florida Everglades, and the dismantling of Washington State’s Elwha Dam to restore natural water flow. That project, Abella points out, was the world’s largest dam removal project and took nearly 20 years of planning. “You can’t just blow up something like that,” Abella says.

Abella also provides a compelling picture of what state-of-the-art conservation has to offer. He shows, for example, what Glacier National Park reveals through its disappearing ice sheet. He explains how tree rings from a fallen sequoia in its namesake national park provided hard data on more than 500 years of a regional climate history. And he details how satellite imagery of Lake Mead can tell a 30-year story of an entire region’s water struggles.

The threats our national parks face can sometimes seem overwhelming, Abella says. But there is reason for optimism.Scott Abella at the Lake Mead Recreation Area

“The permanency of these parks is pretty amazing,” Abella says. "There’s been tremendous political turnover in the last century—44 changes of Congress and 27 presidents with some very different ideologies—but these parks are stable. If there’s one area in which there’s been national consensus, it’s in preserving these special places.”

Abella’s first job at UNLV began in 2006. Through independent grant funding, he worked for six years as an associate research professor conducting studies funded by several conservation organizations. When the economy turned and funding began to dry up, he left the university to become an ecologist with the National Park Services. His time away would be short-lived, however, as grant funding from the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research program, EPSCoR, allowed Abella to rejoin the UNLV faculty in 2015.  

Abella’s specializations in restoration ecology and fire ecology are high-demand research areas. The National Park Service has previously funded him to plan, write, and execute plant-management restoration plans for park service lands in Texas and New Mexico. More recently, he received funds from the California State Office of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to lead a collaboration with the U.S. Geological Survey and University of California, Riverside. In total, his research team has been funded through 2019 with awards totaling $700,000.

Abella’s work extends beyond the borders of the protected lands he researches. A project in Glen Canyon, for example, includes support for a graduate student of Hualapai ancestry whose role involves identifying native plants that appear in the oral histories of her tribe.

“I really try to bring research into the classes I teach,” Abella says. “The more we can do that, the more we open doors for UNLV along with the minds and eyes of our students.”

Abella says he’s also excited to see that his book is making its way into parks’ visitor centers and gift shops. Conserving America’s National Parks appears in eight shops already, including those at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area and Great Basin National Park in Nevada. It is also under review for inclusion on the shelves of several other shops.

As one can imagine, there’s no shortage of beautiful books about our national parks. But few aim to do what Abella has accomplished.

“I tried to make this book an educational reference that both enlightens and entertains,” Abella says, “with real examples of projects from national parks that help readers understand the issues defining contemporary conservation.”