Earth Day Editorial: Where's the Science? by Michael B. Goldstein
Ecology: The science of the relationships between organisms and their environments.[The American HeritageŽ Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition]
Protecting the environment depends on good science. Good intentions aren't enough. "Common sense" ideas about cause and effect are often not true. The Law of Unintended Consequences means that the best laid plans often end up backfiring. And these mistakes can have a ripple effect, throwing an entire ecosystem out of balance.
That is why it is troubling to see how the National Park Service has approached the ecology of Fort Funston. In the current bank swallow debate, many dog owners and others would have been willing to accept major restrictions on land use if valid scientific studies had been presented for review in a public forum. But we had neither studies nor forum.
Instead, and mostly through a federal lawsuit, we found a history of changing rationales for one land closure after another.
The '95 northern closure was for the bank swallow habitat. But the swallows don't go there anymore. If you go there, you'll see these signs, just thirty feet apart (photo: April 17th.) One cites the bank swallow habitat; the other, native plant restoration.
The two are related, of course; everything's related in the environment. One claim has been that, by keeping people and dogs out of the new, "permanent" closure area, ripping out the existing ice plant and planting so-called native plants, this will help the bank swallows. It's reasoned that, even though the bank swallows feed on insects primarily at Lake Merced, introducing new native plants would increase biodiversity, thereby increasing the insect count and helping provide supplemental food for the bank swallows.
A wide swath of land, many acres more than simply the cliffs, has been completely closed to recreational use half the year (the "seasonal" closure area) in the name of bank swallow habitat protection but with virtually no scientific justification.
Then there was the other '95 closure, the hillside between Battery Davis and the beach access route near the base of the "loop". This closure was also done in the name of native plant restoration, and was then to be reopened in five years. However, whatever the rationale for the planting, it never happened and that land has recently had its signs changed to read, "Closed for Your Safety," with no further details.
Finally, the Sunset Trail was abruptly closed for months and only reopened partially (still closed to those who can't traverse its now unpaved and uneven sandy surfaces) after a firestorm of protest. No scientific studies were put forth by the Park Service, which claimed later that much of the route was unsafe pavement, not documented, to justify what appeared to many to be an outright falsehood. An April 5th letter to the GGNRA from the chair of the Conservation Committee of the Golden Gate Audubon Society recommends closure of that zone as well, claiming that erosion from usage is a threat to the adjacent cliffs. Again, little in the way of verifiable evidence to back up such claims.
Combined, these five zones represent the vast majority of the coastal bluffs of Fort Funston. How would the environment, which includes humans and dogs, be impacted by such a severe closure? Where are the assumptions, hypotheses, predictions, criteria, controlled experiments, data from observation, results, interpretations, and repeatability that would be the foundation of valid scientific studies of Fort Funston's ecology?
Fort Funston is not an island; it's part of a system. That system, the National Park Service, is run by administrators who, according to an article in Science magazine this month [ 1. ] ,
"have tended to view science with anything from benign neglect to outright hostility. The result has been a number of decisions that have been slammed by scientists, challenged in court, and even debated in Congress..."
Later, the article states,
"A 1992 study by the National Academy of Sciences, for instance, found that 'almost invariably... management of the parks was done with inadequate understanding of ecological systems.' And the science that has been done has often been manipulated to support policy, critics allege. Park managers 'have very carefully controlled the actual research that's done and the reporting of that research,' says ecologist Fred Wagner of Utah State University in Logan, citing studies of elk and grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park.".
[ 1. ] "Bringing Science to the National Parks" by Jocelyn Kaiser, SCIENCE, 7 April 2000, p. 34.
What appears to be a hawk hovers near the bank swallow habitat on April 20th. Hawks and other predators swoop down and devour hatchlings waiting at the entrance to their burrows for their parents to return with food. This is a part of nature's course, but since the bank swallows are a threatened species (although not an endangered species as stated on Park Service signs put up with the seasonal closure on April 12th) efforts may be made to discourage this activity. It's possible that human and dog activity in the now closed area would reduce the birds of prey's numbers and thereby help protect the bank swallow habitat. Research (2) found adjacent land use common and not generally harmful to bank swallow colonies. The post just below the top of the cliffs is one of dozens of damaged or destroyed fenceposts and signs, previous years' attempts to protect the bank swallows, which the Park Service has neglected to maintain while going forward with a much more costly and controversial closure plan this year.
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Fort Funston Forum is an independent publication. The opinions expressed are those of the editor and identified writers, and are specifically not presented here as the opinions of any other person or organization involved with current issues at Fort Funston. ***** Michael B. Goldstein, Editor