Leaf Litter

Expert Q&A: Dr. Bert Frost

We hear from the Associate Director for Natural Resource Stewardship and Science for the National Park Service.

By Amy Nelson

Article Index

Bert Frost is the Associate Director for Natural Resource Stewardship and Science for the National Park Service (NPS). In addition, he serves as Chief Scientist for the NPS and has programmatic responsibly for all aspects of the Natural Resource and Science Programs throughout the Service. This includes programs in air resources, soundscapes, night skies, geologic resources, climate change, social science, environmental compliance, resource damage assessment and restoration, biological resources, water resources, and the NPS inventory and monitoring program.

Before coming to his present position, he was Deputy Associate Director for NRSS for three years.  Prior to that, he was the National Park Service Research Coordinator at the Great Basin Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit (CESU), located at the University of Nevada, Reno.  There he worked with parks throughout the country and 12 major universities in the Great Basin region on a wide variety of natural, cultural, and social science topics. He also worked as the Wildlife Biologist and Natural Resource Program Manager at Gettysburg National Military Park, and Eisenhower National Historic Site. He has a B.S. in Wildlife and Range Management, a M.S. in Zoology, and a Ph.D. in Wildlife Ecology.  Currently he spends most of his time on issues relating to climate change, energy development, overflights, ungulate overabundance, and trying to keep bad things from happening to parks throughout the country.

A bureau of the U.S. Department of the Interior, the National Park Service is responsible for 122 historical parks and sites, 74 monuments, 58 national parks, 24 battlefields or military parks, 18 preserves, 18 recreation areas, 10 seashores, four parkways, four lakeshores, and two reserves. This interview focuses mainly on national parks.

Broadly speaking, what is the greatest challenge to protecting the ecological integrity of US national parks?

The change in earth’s climate poses our greatest challenge. We’ve seen habitat fragmentation, scores of invasive species and deposition of airborne contaminants. Beyond climate change, we are faced with poachers who target threatened and endangered plant and animal species.

What are some of the major threats, by region, to the ecological integrity of U.S. national parks?

Every region’s ecological integrity is threatened, although the Alaska Region may still have enough land to avoid habitat fragmentation. Predicted sea rise, an effect of climate change, will likely mean the loss of land and property in our national seashores from the Atlantic Ocean down around Florida and the Gulf and the West Coast. We are already losing alpine habitat in some mountainous areas. Change is at hand for virtually every national park landscape.

Are you saying that among the many factors threatening the ecological integrity of park lands, climate change is of most concern to the National Park Service?


Are there some examples you can share from National Park sites that can help illustrate this threat?

The American pika of Rocky Mountain National Park is one example. Pika do not tolerate heat very well so as the average temperature of their preferred habitat rises, their response is to abandon that habitat. In this case it means moving to higher ground. Theoretically, there will come a time when the pika on a given piece of habitat cannot move any higher in elevation. We do find pika in other alpine habitat of the Rocky Mountains so we have questions ahead of us: do we at some point have pockets of pika? Do they migrate to other locations farther north? How do they adapt? What can we do to mitigate conditions? Lots of research to do.

Habitat for the Joshua trees in Joshua Tree National Park is another example. Temperature change pushes them, habitat-wise, upslope. They exist in certain places because of certain air temperature and moisture conditions. If you think about where you live and the external forces that make it a comfortable place for you to live and work, you can see how when conditions change there will come a point when you move on. Animal species and plant species respond in similar fashion.

We also see some hardwood tree species that are moving northward. We can track that migration. Over time, if temperatures continue as forecast, there are places in the country that will lose species.

Tell me about the National Park Service’s Climate Change Response ProgramDoes that fall out of the Department of the Interior’s Climate Adaptation Initiative?

Yes it does. The National Park Service has an inventory and monitoring program that is nearly 10 years old so we have a start, a baseline, that helps us see what landscapes looked like and with continued monitoring we are able to see changes take place. This has been a real asset to the development of our climate change response strategy. The ability to observe change over time helps us predict something about what national park landscapes will look like in the future. The inventory and monitoring program is also of great value as we work with other bureaus in the Department of the Interior. It should allow us to model future landscape changes on other public lands and may allow us a means to provide corridors for species migration to suitable habitat when climate change dictates they move.

We received initial Congressional funding for a climate response program for the current fiscal year (FY2010.) Our focus, based on sound science, includes National Park Service-wide and National Park System-wide planning and projects in the areas of mitigation, adaptation, and education.  The Climate Friendly Parks program, in which EPA and others are major partners, helps parks learn about their own greenhouse gas emissions and inform the public about these emissions.  The process of scenario planning in parks and groups of parks helps parks explore alternative futures in the face of climate change and has us thinking about the park actions we can take to adapt to alternative futures.

Has anything been implemented at this point, or is the emphasis mostly on inventory and monitoring at this point.

We’re just in our first year of climate change appropriations so at this point we’ve been able to add a few new and critical staff members to work with existing employees to lay out a framework for a climate change response strategy and to initiate a select number of pilot projects and studies. We’ve asked Congress to include $10 million for climate change work in the FY 2011 budget and hope this will become permanent funding so we can continue the program. We are, by the way, just about to announce the first round of grants for research projects and programs.

Generally speaking, we will take a look at landscapes and their indicator species, like the American pica and high alpine habitat. For the pica we’ll look at occupancy patterns and genetic structure across parks. We’ll document where these indicator species live and generate models to predict the range of current habitat. Another study will survey bees in parks with especially climate sensitive ecosystems such as coastal dunes, high elevation alpine meadows and arid dune landscapes. Some of these projects, by the way, will include not just scientists and graduate students but citizen scientists.

What do you mean by “citizen scientists?”

Every national park has a friends group or local following. Citizen scientists are volunteers. After going through a brief training course, they become monitors for us. An example of how we work with citizen scientists is the “bioblitz” we do in partnership with National Geographic and others. We might have, for example, a group of high school students go into a park and, for 24 hours, count every single species they can find. An example is the bioblitz project at Biscayne National Park.

The NPS has proposed a budget of $2.73 billion for FY 2011. Generally speaking, what portion of this budget goes most directly toward the protection and restoration of natural resources?

The biggest segment of our budget is called “Operation of the National Park System,” and that accounts for $2.3 billion. ONPS, as we call it, includes budgets for each national park. The remainder of the budget is for the programs of national recreation and preservation, urban park and recreation, historic preservation, construction, and land acquisition.

Does that include another $10 million for climate change?


A lot of research suggests that tropic cascades – the domino effect of disruption within a food web when a key predator is removed- are a major cause of biodiversity loss. The reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park in the 90s seems to support this (return of wolves helped control overgrazing by elk, which in turn has led to the return of aspen & willow along stream banks, etc.). Does the NPS have any kind of official standpoint on the reintroduction of keystone species?

This is an important issue to us and we don’t call it “reintroduction.” It is species restoration. Introduced species and processes are contrary to the purpose of reserves, so reintroducing species is doubly contrary. Restoration of extirpated species in parks is very important but difficult to achieve. A proposal to restore large predators creates controversy as well as expense. Restoration of other species creates expense. Restoration of the natural role of wild land fire creates both controversy and expense. Removal of dams that block species migrations and natural processes along river corridors causes controversy and expense. It’s all expensive, and 90% of it is going to be controversial because it’s change.

Cascading effects? Absolutely. Extirpation of keystone species can have cascading effects, many of which we may not understand.  I don’t know that we all understood what would happen when we restored wolves to YellowstoneNational Park. The wolves curb the elk population but we also benefitted with improved water quality in streams, which was better for trout. I don’t know that we thought about that happening, but it did. The restoration of wolves to Yellowstone revealed responsive changes in elk population sizes and behaviors which in turn affected the abundance of plants such as willow and aspen which in turn may affect the abundance of beaver, and so on and so forth.

Climate change models suggest there will be a decline of white bark pine in Yellowstone and such a decline could affect the grizzly bear population. Presumptive climate change gives native bark beetles opportunity to be more active. Their increased activity, coupled with drought causing greater stress to trees, may lead to a greater extent of tree death and, subsequently, to increased amounts of wild land fire and possibly a subsequent change in the past pattern of post-fire plant succession. Chestnut blight has removed chestnut as a functional member of the eastern forest and that resulted in a loss of chestnut forage for bear, deer, turkey, squirrel and other fauna.  The loss of this forage source presumably has been mitigated by an increase in oak and hickory seeds that may be used for forage. An effective restoration of the chestnut presumably would alter the composition of these deciduous forests as we know them today. Hemlock wooly adelgid  is causing major decline of hemlock which may, in the future, greatly change the habitat properties of mountain stream valleys and the habitat of bird species that depend on hemlock forest for nesting and feeding locations. 

Are there plans to reintroduce wolves or any other keystone species elsewhere in the National Parks system?

Not at this time.

Can you share any success stories of how some parks have managed to protect and/or restore ecosystems while also providing access and maximizing the visitor experience

Restoration of the wolves to Yellowstone National Park was one of the most visible success stories. Elk were overgrazing the aspen and willow, and stands weren’t doing well. It wasn’t until the wolves were restored and exerted some control over the elk population and their behavior that biologists noticed the aspen/willow stands started looking better. We’ve combined the restoration of alpine vegetation with an increased effort to encourage visitors to stay on trails in several parks. In Shenandoah National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we’ve restored vegetation following the elimination of farming and grazing.

One of the biggest projects we have going on now is the elimination of two dams on the Elwha River in Olympic National Park. So far, we’ve built two water treatment plants so the nearby communities, including an Indian reservation, will have clean, potable water when the dams are removed. The elimination of the dams will eventually mean restoration of the natural runs of salmon and the food chains that depend on migrating salmon. We’re building a fish hatchery right now and the Elwah Indian Tribe will operate it for salmon restoration.

The NPS is responsible for a mix of rural and urban parks. In terms of ecosystem protection, does NPS focus more on one type than the other?

We don’t have a bias. We have 84 million acres of the best of the nation’s greatest historic, cultural and natural landscapes – including oceans. We do believe we can make a difference in urban landscapes and do so quickly. We have a project with the Alice Ferguson Foundation, for example, where students from urban schools can work on their science curriculum in a national park setting. Also, in an urban park setting, you have a big audience close at hand, and that’s an opportunity to reach a lot of people on a regular basis.

Can you provide an example or two of NPS efforts to protect/restore ecosystems within an urban park?

The National Mall and Gateway National Recreation Area in New York City come to mind immediately. The American Elms and the turf of the National Mall – America’s Front Yard – are part of our cultural heritage and it’s a struggle to protect. The elm trees receive attention each year because of Forest Health dollars from the USDA Forest Service. They are carefully monitored and we trim disease when we find it and we have the Jefferson Elm, grown in a nursery on the George Washington Memorial Parkway, are used to replace old elms that die off. The turf is a maintenance issue that pits daily use by millions of visitors against the desire to have a green lawn. We’ve put together a work group to find a solution that will revitalize the mall turf but I don’t have any breakthrough to report.

There is a successful restoration project in the Jamaica Bay unit of Gateway National Recreation Area near New York City. There, for the last 10 years, millions of pounds of rich, silty soils dredged from the waters around New York to deepen shipping channels have been used to restore the Hudson-Rarity Estuary and islands of Jamaica Bay. More than 40 acres have been restored at Elders Point East since 2006 and today, at nearby Elders Point West, more than 30 acres of wetlands are expected to be restored. At Elders Point East, many varieties of plant life are now found from this restoration work. As sand is pumped onto the island, it is specially contoured and shaped, and then native species are planted. By the time the channel dredging project ends in 2014 another 50 acres will have been restored to Yellow Bar Hassock, too.

Are there plans to establish any new national parks?

There is a bill in Congress right now that would create a new national park in Delaware. Delaware is the only state that does not have a national park. We’ll wait and see what Congress decides. We’ve done a special resource study and found sites in Delaware that meet national park criteria. Creation of national parks really begins with people at a grass roots level – say, a neighborhood. Here’s a rough example of what happens: people get together and say, “This should really be a national park and here’s why.” That support starts to grow. If it continues to generate support and gets the attention, support and buy-in of a member of Congress chances are good the Member will introduce a bill in Congress that would direct the Secretary of the Interior to study the feasibility of a national park site in that location. At any given time, there are a couple dozen or more of these special resource studies going on. We make our recommendations to the Secretary which go to Congress and then Congress decides whether or not to make a national park.

How are the national parks in south Florida responding to the oil spill and its threats to ecosystems such as the Everglades, mangrove forests, coral reefs, shallow bays, etc.? (Note: this interview was conducted on May 25 with this question updated June 7.)

Our first action was to call up incident command teams and our first priority was to complete baseline surveys to document the condition of the Everglades, forests, reefs, beaches and shallow bays before the oil washed ashore. The effects of crude oil on a beach, a reef, marsh or the glades will be grave. We’ll do our level best to clean up the oil and hope that the flow of oil from the damaged well is stopped as quickly as possible. Once major clean up is complete we’ll document what we hope will be a return to ecosystem health. And no, we don’t know how long that will take.

Which U.S. national parks do you think currently have the healthiest ecosystems and why? (Are most people aware of this, or are these little known secrets?)

We have 392 national parks and a dozen national trails – some 84 million acres of the nation’s most significant historic, cultural and natural landscapes. I’d simply get in trouble with a lot of dedicated National Park Service employees and national park visitors if I were to name the “healthiest ecosystems.” We don’t have the capacity of human and financial resources to fairly and accurately make such a judgment. Our goal is to manage natural systems and processes in fulfilling our mission to conserve all parks for the enjoyment of this and future generations and we do that as best we can.

Is there a specific invasive species considered by the NPS to be “enemy number one” in terms of the threat it poses to park land? Can you give us a few examples of national parks in which invasive species (flora or fauna) pose a major threat to ecosystems and tell us how the NPS is responding?

When it comes to invasive species we don’t have a number one enemy. In the south and southeast parks we’re concerned about pythons and kudzu and Brazilian Coffee Tree. Out west it’s cheat grass, Tamarisk, Russian Olive, eucalyptus, star thistle, leafy spurge. It just depends on the part of the country.

The UN proclaimed 2010 to be the “year of international biodiversity.” Is the NPS focused on actions specifically related to biodiversity?

Yes we are, but we’ve been focused on biodiversity for years. Each year, for the past four years, we’ve held a bioblitz with the National Geographic Society. We just wrapped up the latest bioblitz at Biscayne National Park, we’re in Saguaro National Park next year and a couple of years ago we did the event here in Washington with E.O. Wilson who is credited with starting the bioblitz idea at Harvard. The concept, which involves citizen scientists, caught on at many other national parks.

Olympic National Park has an annual “All-Taxa Biodiversity Inventory,” and Boston Harbor NHP has worked with Professor Wilson for years. Acadia National Park in Maine has a citizen science bioblitz and Glacier National Park is doing a loon survey with citizen scientists.

Do you have any interesting examples of how the NPS has worked outside park boundaries to address factors that influence ecological integrity and biological diversity within a park (such as pollution, species migration)?

Air quality has a direct affect on the experience visitors have in national parks. For the past 20 years we’ve had an active air resources program and this work is virtually all outside park boundaries with state environmental and air quality agencies. As an example, at Rocky Mountain National Park we’re working with the state of Colorado on critical loads of Nitrogen. We are also working with states on their visibility State Implementation Plans. The Environmental Protection Agency Regional Haze Rule requires states to show progress – a “glide path” toward pristine visibility by 2064. While visibility itself is not an ecological issue, the pollutants that are being reduced do have ecological impacts, and so park ecosystems will benefit from these visibility state implementation plans.

I read that the NPS helps protect resources for public enjoyment that are not part of the national park system through grants and technical assistance programs. Can you give me a few examples of how the NPS has helped a community to protect or enhance natural resources this way?

You’re probably thinking of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which has provided local governments millions of dollars to purchase, expand, restore and upgrade local parklands. Our Rivers, Trails Conservation Assistance Program (RTCA) is the community assistance arm of the National Park Service. RTCA supports community-led natural resource conservation and outdoor recreation projects. We work with partners who protect more than 700 miles of rivers, created more than 1,400 miles of trails, and conserved more than 63,700 acres of open space each year.

The Department of the Interior has a goal to increase by 50% the employment of young adults in its conservation mission by the end of 2011. Tell me about the NPS’ involvement in the Department’s Youth in Natural Resources Initiative. How important do you think engaging young people is to the sustainability of ecosystems on NPS land?

The National Park Service – or any other agency or private enterprise – depends on youth if the agency or business is to have a future. That may sound cliché, but it is true. And all of our employees, whether they start their careers today or are about to retire, are affected by the issue of sustainability of ecosystems because our mission is to preserve unimpaired our natural, cultural and historic landscapes so that this and future generations may enjoy them.

We appreciate the fact that Secretary Ken Salazar emphasized youth in natural resources with an initiative. The National Park Service has several internship programs that help young people to understand ecosystems and fit the Secretary’s initiative. Two examples are our “Geoscientist in Parks,” and “Climate Change,” internship programs. The Public Lands Corps Program and the Youth Conservation Corps Program introduce young people to natural resource conservation through vocational opportunities in national parks.

The budget requested by NPS for FY 2011 includes a $2 million increase for the “Chesapeake Bay Restoration.” Can you tell me about this program?

We intend to offer competitive “matching” grants to state, local and non-governmental partners throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed, particularly along the Susquehanna River, the bay itself and major tributaries to expand public access to waters of the bay and tributaries. We would also assist partners with interpretation of and education about watershed resources, strengthen heritage tourism and promote citizen stewardship of the bay and the region.

What other countries’ national parks agencies do you regard as leaders in terms of the protection, enhancement and restoration of ecological integrity and resilience on park land?

This is a big question, as there are many park agencies around the world which are leaders in one aspect or another of this issue. Parks Canada comes first to my mind, particularly with their “Ecological Integrity” program. Other places that I would take a look at include Australia,  New Zealand, and Costa Rica.

Got an idea?

Contact The Editor

Sign up for Leaf Litter

Browse by topic

Browse by year