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CBS Doctoral Student Studying Preservation in National Parks

March 27, 2018

Over the past year, Center for Biology and Society PhD student, Michelle Sullivan Govani has spent time in national parks across the country to conduct her dissertation work on the future of U.S. National Parks in the Anthropocene, the Age of Humans. (And in writing this profile, she realized that she doesn’t take nearly enough photos of the amazing places she visits!)

In her work, Michelle aims to describe the changing interpretation and practice of “preservation” in national parks over the last decade. Since 1916, the US National Park Service’s (NPS) mission has been “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life [in parks]” and to “leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” (i) This mandate is comprised of two management goals: (1) “preservation” of the natural resources in the parks and, (2) “enjoyment” of the parks by the public. Managing for these two goals promises to be challenging during the twenty-first century. Climate change is melting the glaciers and drowning the Everglades. Development projects, accompanied by air, water, light, and noise pollution, edge closer to park boundaries and fragment habitats and migration corridors. (ii) Many parks feel the pressure of millions of visitors on facilities, trails, wildlife, and vegetation. And in seeming paradox with the crowding challenge, the park service is also grappling with shifting national demographics that will test the relevancy of the institution.

With these challenges in mind, Michelle’s research is guided by her interest in the future of humanity’s relationship with nature: (1) what is the history and future of nature preservation as both an idea and a practice in national park management? And (2) how do we preserve nature in the Age of Humans?

Some of Michelle’s work occurs in Joshua Tree National Park, CA. She collaborates with park staff to determine how visitors are responding to changing resource conditions, as well as to current and proposed management strategies in response to change. Beyond this visitor-study, Michelle also conducts interviews with staff and managers at several parks around the country, including Joshua Tree, Everglades, Yosemite, and Colonial National Historical Park, among many others. Her interviews have also taken her to the Department of Interior in Washington, D.C., where she conducted interviews with leaders and administrators in the Washington Office of the National Park Service.

The NPS brings together two incredibly complex, dynamic systems under the force of law: the political and ecological realms. But despite awareness of the complex political system from which the NPS sprouted, proponents of the NPS at its origins had no knowledge of ecology (it was not yet a field of study at the time). It would take decades for an understanding of ecology and related sciences to emerge at the NPS, a trend which has accelerated during the last decade. Thus, a large part of Michelle’s research entails investigating how the NPS uses science in uncertain and politically contentious contexts in their efforts to interpret and practice preservation. Integrating these concepts requires an interdisciplinary perspective, including reviews of scientific literature, analysis of policy documents, and interviews with policy makers and land managers.

Michelle recently published an essay with the Center for Humans & Nature, reflecting on her evolving personal relationship with national parks and protected areas. In addition, Michelle’s deep dive into themes and concepts related to science policy and evidence-based decision-making, inspired her to co-found a blog, Muddling Through Science, Policy, and Politics, where she procrastinates “real” work by writing her own blog-posts and editing posts from other students (including posts by Biology and Society PhD student, Christian Ross).

Outside of her research, Michelle volunteers with the Arizona Ballet, teaches yoga and barre, and loves to cook and spend time with her family. Michelle is also the Vice President of External Affairs for the ASU Graduate and Professional Student Association. During the fall 2017 semester, she led the external affairs team in successfully lobbying the Arizona delegation to exclude taxes on graduate student tuition-waivers from the final version of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. She feels honored and privileged to represent her fellow graduate students in regular trips to district offices, as well as to Washington, D.C., to engage with the policy-making process and to advocate for the rights and well-being of graduate students at ASU.

More Information: Michelle Sullivan Govani (Michelle.K.Sullivan@asu.edu)

[i] P.L. 64-235, “An Act to Establish a National Park Service;” (16 U.S.C. § 1)

[ii] Hansen, A. A. J., Piekielek, N., Davis, C., Haas, J., Theobald, D. M., Gross, J.

E., . . . Running, S. W. 2014. “Exposure of U.S. National Parks to Land Use and Climate Change 1900–2100.” Ecological Applications 24(3): 484-502.; Monahan, W. B., & Fisichelli, N. A. 2014. “Climate Exposure of US National Parks in a New Era of Change.” PLoS ONE 9(7):e101302.


N. A. 2014. “Climate Exposure of US National Parks in a New Era of Change.” PLoS ONE 9(7): e101302.


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