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2017 Birdsall-Dreiss Distinguished Lecturer addresses questions facing National Parks Service stewards

On Thurs, Nov. 2, Supervisory Hydrologist and Chief of the United States National Park Service Water Resources Division Dr. Forrest “Ed” Harvey visited Beloit College as the 2017 Birdsall-Dreiss Distinguished Lecturer. Dr. Harvey spoke about his work for students, faculty and community members in a lecture titled “Water Resource Management in the US National Park Service.”

For tourists admiring the beauty of US National Parks, “that ‘ah!’ moment is always a result of water,” Harvey, who is also a Professor of hydrologic sciences at the University of Nebraska, said in advocacy for his division at the National Park Service.

Harvey explained that alongside the NPS’s acknowledgement of its centennial in August 2016, the parks’ staff witnessed a massive increase in popular interest and patronage. They were forced to reevaluate the sustainability of the NPS, especially considering visitor use impacts and water needs. That reassessment has joined other current questions of identity and conservation for the service. 

One of those questions is whether the impacts of former residents and projects within the National Parks, including canals, dams, mining operations, livestock grazing, and even former NPS infrastructure should be undone or reversed. Another is whether park stewardship should adapt to inevitably changing conditions. Harvey said that NPS staff can do nothing about ecosystems that are “evolving” because of climate change and other repercussions of anthropogenic activity, and asked whether they should strive to maintain current standards or to acclimate to developing ones.

Harvey noted that the remains of Fort Jefferson, a huge, unfinished coastal fortress found within Dry Tortugas National Park in the Gulf of Mexico, have been sinking into the ocean due to rising sea levels over the past several decades. The NPS must decide, he said, whether to somehow salvage or even move the fortress or whether to abandon it.

He also wished for his audience to understand some of the bureaucratic realities of NPS stewardship. Washington, DC makes decisions long before the parks can, Harvey said, and even then their budget allocation and employee distribution are designed primarily to cater to the enjoyment of visitors. Decisions are also not made based upon scientific knowledge alone. Other necessary considerations include cultural resources and heritage, handicap accessibility, socioeconomic and political situations, and public opinion and support. Harvey called every decisionmaking factor “deeply valid.”

The Birdsall-Dreiss Lectureship honors John Manning Birdsall, a former geologist for the Water Resources Division of the U.S. Geological Survey, and the University of California  – Santa Cruz’s Dr. Shirley Dreiss, who was the Birdsall Lecturer in 1992 and passed away shortly after her tour. The Lectureship began in 1975 as part of a bequest to the Geological Society of America – Hydrogeology Division in Mr. Birdsall’s memory. Recent lecturers have delivered up to fifty talks in North America, Europe, Asia and Australia.

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