Vital Signs Networks
A commitment to resource protection
National parks are places of spectacular beauty, encompassing
an enormous diversity of landscapes and living things.
Imagine a range of natural communities that includes tundra
where wolves chase caribou, desert lands forested with
majestic saguaro cacti, and seashores where loggerhead
turtles come to lay their eggs. Unfortunately, beauty
is not a sufficient indication of the condition and health
of national parks. Just like a physician monitors a patient’s
heartbeat and blood pressure for diagnostic purposes,
National Park Service managers need accurate information
about the resources in their care. They need to know how
and why natural systems change over time, and what amount
of change is normal, in order to make sound management
decisions. Therefore, the National Park Service has begun
natural resource monitoring throughout the National Park
System to gather this information as part of the Natural
Resource Challenge program.
A key component of this effort, known
as Park Vital Signs Monitoring, is the organization of
approximately 270 park units into 32 monitoring networks
to conduct long-term monitoring for key indicators of
change, or “vital signs.” Vital signs are
measurable, early warning signals that indicate changes
that could impair the long-term health of natural systems.
Early detection of potential problems allows park managers
to take steps to restore ecological health of park resources
before serious damage can happen.
To facilitate collaboration, information
sharing, and cost savings, individual networks link parks
that share similar geographic and natural resource characteristics.
Each network is tasked with designing a single, integrated
program to monitor both physical and biological resources,
such as air quality, water quality, soils, exotic species,
and threatened and endangered species. The list of environmental
vital signs selected for monitoring the health of these
resources is expected to vary among networks, reflecting
the needs and natural resources of the parks. The National
Park Service is developing guidelines, reference materials,
and information management tools to help networks develop
monitoring programs. To ensure quality and accountability,
a board of directors guides each monitoring network, making
decisions about the development and implementation of
its monitoring program. Board members include park superintendents,
the regional inventory and monitoring coordinator, and
the network monitoring coordinator. By 2005, the National
Park Service plans to have initiated monitoring programs
for all 32 networks.
Park Vital Signs Monitoring is a cornerstone
of effective park management, providing managers with
the scientifically sound information needed to safeguard
the health and integrity of landscapes and living things
that make up our national parks.