Land & Environment

No Park an Island: USU Scientist Studying National Park Boundaries

USU professor Mark Brunson is co-principal investigator of a multi-institution initiative to study the ecological and social effects of national park boundaries. The team received a four-year, $1.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

It’s said fences make good neighbors, but vast expanses of the continental United States have no such demarcations. Animals, plants and water, and often humans, ignore man-made boundaries anyway. Therefore, protecting and conserving the assets of America’s national parks is a distinct challenge.

“Wildlife in our national parks are protected, but they’re not restricted to the parks,” says Mark Brunson, professor in Utah State University’s Department of Environment and Society and the USU Ecology Center. “As animals cross boundaries, they may or may not be welcome in neighboring areas.”

Brunson is a co-principal investigator of a multi-institution initiative aimed at studying the ecological and social effects of national park boundaries and exploring cross-boundary partnerships to reduce negative impacts and improve environmental stewardship. Led by Northern Arizona University, the research team, which includes USU, the University of Kansas and non-profit research organizations Resources for the Future and Point Blue Conservation, received a four-year, $1.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation to fund the study.

Parks are rarely large enough to provide all the space and resources needed to maintain all of their native species, Brunson says. New animals diversify the gene pool within the parks, yet porous borders also allow for introduction of invasive species and other threats. Outside the park, neighbors may contend with wildlife conflicts with humans or livestock.

“For park managers, this situation requires complex strategies,” he says. “Each resident or neighboring stakeholder has varied interests and requirements.”

For the study, the research team has selected five national parks: Arizona’s Grand Canyon, the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina, Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, Lassen Volcanic National Park in California and Yellowstone National Park.

“These parks are characterized by very different land ownership ‘mosaics’ in the lands bordering the parks,” Brunson says. “We’ll study how this mix of ownerships affects ecological processes such as non-native plant invasion and connectivity between patches of wildlife habitat, and also how these ownerships affect social processes such as cooperation and community well-being.”

How complicated are these ownership patchworks? Start with the park itself and its unique ecosystem. Add the park’s many visitors, their methods of conveyance and their consumption needs. Around the park, landowners may include the National Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, Native American reservations or multiple state agencies. They could also include varied private landowners, including extractive industries, farms and ranches, as well as recreational facilities, residences and vacation homes. Consider a bird’s eye view of the park: You’ll likely see rivers, power lines, highways and perhaps railroads — all evidence of additional owners and stakeholders.

“Each of these stakeholders takes actions that may affect a park, and the park’s activities can affect every stakeholder,” Brunson says. “Our project will explore impacts occurring in both directions and how these impacts can, in turn, influence the ways parks and stakeholders work together or come into conflict.”

Among the goals of the research, he says, are improving understanding of how management challenges are affected by collaboration and connectivity across boundaries, the scale at which ecological divergence occurs and factors that can help managers achieve diverse objectives.

Related links:

Contact: Mark Brunson, 435-797-2458,

Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517,

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