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100th birthday of our national parks: What does the century ahead hold?
See the national parks in a new way with ASU visual projects, research.
ASU research covers topics including visitor use, interpretation and technology.
August 24, 2016

ASU research projects help inform agency's decisions on how to welcome crowds while saving the landscape

Before she laid eyes on the spectacular Old Faithful geyser, Megha Budruk sought out a specific area far from the throng of tourists when she first visited Yellowstone National Park in Montana.

“I wanted to be at the spot where this idea of the national parks came about,” said Budruk, an associate professor of the School of Community Resources and Development The School of Community Resources and Development is part of ASU's College of Public Service and Community Solutions.who teaches a course on wilderness and the parks at Arizona State University.

At that quiet, lonely junction of two rivers in 1870, a group of explorers was struck by the insight that the stunning landscape around them should be preserved forever. Decades later, on Aug. 25, 1916, Congress passed the National Park Service Organic Act, creating the agency that cares for those natural treasures.

This week, as the National Park Service marks its centennial, the federal agency is working hard to balance its twin mandates of forever preserving the most beautiful and historic sites in the country, while at the same time ensuring that everyone gets an opportunity to see them. As visitation soars, especially at the “crown jewel” parks such as the Grand Canyon in Arizona, the park service is dealing with the pressure to accommodate all those people in a sustainable way.

To face that challenge, the agency relies on research to guide its decisions. Over the past few years, Budruk and other ASU faculty and students have studied big-picture issues in the parks including visitor use, the changing nature of interpretation, and the role of technology in saving the parks.

“We welcome research projects from academia,” said Jeffrey Olson, a spokesman for the National Park Service. “That independent research by universities is vital to helping us understand all of these natural systems and landscapes.”

Meanwhile, Budruk, who takes students to national parks abroad during the summers, said the National Park Service needs to reflect on its next 100 years.

“We talk about the national parks as America’s greatest idea,” she said.

“'How do we stay relevant?’ is what they’re trying to figure out.”

'Why this park?'

Americans love the national parks. One of the biggest challenges facing the National Park Service is the crush of crowdsAt the 372 parks, cultural and historic sites managed across the country by the agency, visitors increased 12 percent from 2005 to 2015, according to National Park Service statistics. At the iconic parks, the increase in that 10-year span was even greater: 25 percent at Grand Canyon, 26 percent at Yosemite National Park in California and 44 percent at Yellowstone..

“What does that mean for providing things like trails, visitor centers and hotels, but to do so in a way that leaves these places preserved for the future?” asks Dave White, a professor in the School of Community Resources and Development and director of the ASU Decision Center for a Desert City. He has done several research projects in the parks with ASU students.

ASU professor Dave White (left) worked with Jim Bacon of the National Park Service and Jill Wodrich and Carena Van Riper, then ASU students, at Yosemite National Park a few years ago. The group conducted social science research to inform planning and management for Yosemite, and the project formed the basis of Wodrich's master's thesis. Van Riper went on to earn a doctorate and now conducts National Park Service research as a professor at the University of Illinois.


A critical problem is that at some locations, many visitors are stuffed into a tiny portion of a vast park.

“Yosemite Valley is less than 1 percent of the area of the park and receives 90 percent of the visitors,” he said. That can create an almost urban environment.

His research in Yosemite found that more than 90 percent of visitors arrive and travel in private cars — and that’s how they like it.

“When surveying visitors, three-quarters of them identified ‘scenic driving’ as a primary activity within the park,” he said. His research from 2006 found that visitors found the park’s shuttle buses inconvenient and crowded, but were happy the bus system eased environmental impacts.

White’s research projects have found one key point: For their survival, the parks need to make a connection with visitors, who must understand what makes that site special.

“Why this park? What are the defining characteristics of the natural landscape and cultural history? It helps them to understand that they have a role in preserving the special quality of that place over time,” said White, who works with the parks in projects that help the National Park Service set policy.

“Nudging” people out of their cars and into nature is one way to do that.

“But in many national park sites, even in the iconic parks, the average visitation time can be five hours or half a day. One of the challenges is getting people to engage the park experience beyond the very surface,” White said.

'Meanings have changed'

While Americans flock to Grand Canyon to view a landscape that’s timeless, the way they understand it is constantly changing.

Paul Hirt, a professor of history, has studied the history of interpretations at parks and historical sites.

“For a long time the Grand Canyon was interpreted as a geological wonder,” said Hirt, senior sustainability scholar in the School of Sustainability.

Later, the park hired Navajo and Hopi Indians to add cultural interpretation. In the 1970s, the park’s desert-adapted ecosystem became more highlighted. In the 1980s, the park added an interpretive site that detailed visibility issues and sources of air pollution, and Congress voted to regulate helicopter flights.

“Suddenly we had to ask ourselves, is peace and quiet a value that we want to protect in our national parks?” Hirt asked.

“We interpret the parks through the lens of the issues that face us at any moment in history. The ranger talks or brochures are shaped by the issues and concerns of the day, and those change all the time,” added Hirt, who received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to create a website of interpretative history about Grand Canyon National Park.

The National Park Service’s historical and cultural sites were preserved because they were meaningful to people at one point in time.

“But maybe a generation or two later, meanings have changed. And how we share and interpret that site to visitors has to change,” Hirt said.

He gave as an example the Whitman Mission National Historic Site near Walla Walla, Washington, which was established in 1936 as a memorial to a group of Methodist missionaries who were slain by Native Americans in 1847. Later, the events were reinterpreted to include the views of the Cayuse Indians, who faced disease and the loss of land after the missionaries arrived.

But the park service has to tread carefully, according to Christine Vogt, a professor in the School of Community Resources and Development and director of the ASU Center for Sustainable Tourism, who teaches a class about the history of the parks.

“One of the classic examples is feeding the bearsA ranger dances with a bear at Yosemite in the 1920s. Photo by National Park Service at Yosemite. Now it appalls people that the park service even allowed that to happen,” she said.

“But they have to make sure they’re not buying into the latest crazes. Just because Pokémon Go is popular now doesn’t mean every park should be facilitating Pokemon Go.”

A place to step away

The parks were created because leaders in faraway places saw the stunning vistas captured in paintings and photographs. In the future, people might “visit” a park through a virtual-reality experience, Budruk said.

In the 19th century, the spectacular scenery drew the elites — writers and artists from the East, whose paintings and stories helped convince political leaders of the need to preserve the lands. Later, photographs by Ansel Adams and others showed the spectacular beauty of the landscape.

An ASU faculty member is sustaining the legacy of those early photographers. Binh Danh, an assistant professor of photography in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, travels to national parks to create daguerreotype images of the landscape, in which the photos are made on shiny silver plates.

"It's an amazing process. It's really reflective. So it became very poetic at the begining of photography," said Danh, who travels with a portable laboratory in a van and uses a large-format camera.

"With that idea I wanted to see myself in my photograph, and I want other people to see themselves and especially for people of color, for immigrants, to see their own face in this majestic American landscape. So that's why I began photographing the national parks."

Video: The role of photography in the parks, past and present

Video by Deanna Dent/ASU Now


Most visitors today take digital photos of the parks — and the unnaturally filtered images flood social media.

"Is Instagram really encouraging people to go out and experience it, or is digital media the way we have it today creating an artificial nature where we’re romanticizing this nature and it’s not exactly the same colors or visuals that you’re seeing in a digitized verison?" Budruk said.

"I think digial media has allowed a lot more people to be exposed to the great outdoors and the national parks, but it’s still too new to know what that means."

In looking ahead, Budruk would like the agency to embrace the role of technology in the visitor experience.

“It could be where we download an app and use our phones to learn more about a type of tree. Or maybe someone can’t be on a trail but can be in a theater that surrounds them with that experience,” she said.

“But you can’t deny the fact that there are others who say that the parks are the last place where you can step away from a world that is so full of technology and slow down and explore nature for what it is.”

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Teotihuacan archaeology lab an example of ASU’s engagement with Mexico.
Researchers from around the world study the Teotihuacan collection.
August 29, 2016

ASU's Teotihuacan Research Laboratory is a growing collection that serves as resource for many scholars, projects

Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series about ASU’s Teotihuacan lab. Click for the first and third installments. Lab director Michael E. Smith will appear Wednesday in Tempe to talk about new discoveries; find event information at the bottom of this story. 

It’s 7:30 a.m., and about eight archaeologists from six universities are loading up instruments, backpacks, surveying instruments, water jugs, buckets and tripods into a big gray van.

“We start early,” says one of the student archaeologists, “and we finish late.”

They pull gray tarps and shovels from a tool storage shed. The Arizona State University Teotihuacan Research Laboratory complex doesn’t look that big, but there are storage spaces and workspaces tucked in every corner. They all wear hats (even though it’ll only be 76 today, the city is at high altitude and the sun gets intense) and boots (the ground is rough, and digging turns up lots of rocks).

The van backs out of the complex. Lab director Michael Smith comes out of his guesthouse.

“Oh man, I wish I was going,” he says as he watches them go.  

No other university has a lab at Teotihuacan. This year it turns 30. ASU professor emeritus George Cowgill, the world’s top authority on the ancient city, took over the facility in 1986.

From the street it looks like a CIA black site: towering gray walls, a black steel gate, and a buzzer high out of kid reach. No ASU logo, seal or Sparky.

The main two-story building is devoted to storage and workspaces, with desks under the windows and row after row of boxes that rise to the ceiling and fade into the dark. With an estimated 10,000 boxes of artifacts from excavations as old as 40 years ago, this is the heart of the lab.

The complex has a row of tiny guesthouses that lead back to what is affectionately called the Old House. It contains living quarters for students and visiting scholars, a dining area and kitchen (sign over sink: “Due to budget cutbacks we had to fire the maid. Do your own dishes”), and a small library of airport paperbacks (“If there’s anything classy in there, it belongs to George Cowgill,” Smith said). The living quarters are bare bones; it’s not a resort.

A side office has a trestle table packed with computers, scanners, filing cabinets, and shelves laden with binders and yellowed stacks of reports dating back to the early 1960s. ASU research professor Saburo Sugiyama uses it as an office when he’s in town. No one’s really sure what’s on the shelves.

“I don’t even want to look at it,” Smith says.

Graduate students from several universities pack a van full of archaeology equipment.
Graduate students from a handful of American and Mexican universities pack a van full before going out to dig sites at Teotihuacan.
Top photo: Archaeologists David Camacho (right) of the Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México and Fidel Cano Renteria of MIT look for color differences in obsidian knife points at the ASU Teotihuacan Research Laboratory in Mexico. Photos by Ken Fagan/ASU Now


Cooperation among scholars and nations

The archaeology lab is an example of ASU’s engagement with Mexico.

“We’re in San Juan Teotihuacan, and we have Mexican employees here in the lab, and a lot of Mexican archaeologists use the lab — colleagues use the lab here,” Smith said. “On the current fieldwork project, there are probably more Mexicans than Americans working on that project. It’s a setting for cooperation between U.S. and Mexican students and scholars and workers. It’s a real part of ASU’s outreach to foreign countries, and Mexico in particular. I think people like working here.”

The lab is a resource for many different universities and projects studying Teotihuacan and other nearby sites. In June, there were researchers and students from Penn State, Boston University, George Mason University, Harvard, MIT and the National University of Mexico as well as ASU.

“Right now we have a group from MIT looking at our obsidian,” Smith said. “We have a group from the National University of Mexico looking at some of the mural paintings here. It’s quite extensive, the number of projects from around Mexico and the U.S., that use our facilities here.”

Oralia Cabrera Cortés is the lab’s director of operations. She studied under Cowgill at ASU, earning both her master’s and doctorate.

Scientists and students contact the lab to find out what’s in the collection, then the requirements to study the collection. They file a research proposal with their credentials, intentions and project objectives. Typically they come in the summer, but the lab is open all year.

After visiting scholars do their analyses, they provide the lab with reports and copies of their theses. They have about 70, most relating to the Teotihuacan Mapping ProjectBecause of its combination of scale and detail, the Teotihuacan Mapping Project is the one of the best maps of any ancient city. It shows where artifacts were found, leading to an understanding of how the city functioned. Archaeologists call it “indispensable” for planning work at the city. It was initiated by professor René Millon of the University of Rochester, who directed the detailed mapping of the entire city in the 1960s, combining air photos and mapping with surface reconnaissance of more than 5,000 buildings, making notes on visible features, and collecting nearly a million pottery fragments and other ancient objects from the buildings, but also some from excavations of the Feathered Serpent Pyramid.

Keeping collections is crucial to understanding the history of Teotihuacan, Cabrera said.

“It’s also a very costly activity,” she said. “The INAH (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia / National Institute of Anthropology and History) is the institution in the country that curates and is in charge of facilitated research in archaeology in Mexico. They do have a series of facilities across sites and states. They try to maintain as much as they can. But to maintain collections requires a lot of space that sometimes is not possible to have — and a lot of money too.”

ASU professor Michael E. Smith looks at ancient objects in the Teotihuacan Research Laboratory in Mexico

ASU professor and lab
director Michael Smith
looks at an almena, or
roof ornament, at
ASU's Teotihuacan
Research Laboratory
in Mexico.

Photo by Ken Fagan/ASU Now

Maintaining boxes and collections also diverts funding from more research, Cabrera said. Typically a collection is studied and returned to the INAH, which doesn’t always have the money to store and curate them. New advances in technology mean much can be gleaned from old excavations.

“By keeping these collections here, we have been able to prove that, even with collections that had already been studied partially, there are new techniques in archaeology all the time,” she said. “We are able to continue to extract information that has been very useful to the history of the city. Only by keeping these collections available to everyone who is able to come up with a project, we are able to continue this research.”

Life cycle of a lab

The lab, part of the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, began under professor René Millon of the University of Rochester as a headquarters for the Teotihuacan Mapping Project in the 1960s.

ASU research professor George Cowgill took over as director of the lab in 1986 after Millon retired. Around 1987 Cowgill got a grant to build the current lab building from the National Science Foundation. Then he got another grant to expand the lab and put a second story on it.

The lab moved from housing artifacts from the Teotihuacan Mapping Project to storing artifacts from other digs.

“Because we’re curating the artifacts — we’re keeping them, we’re keeping them in good order, we’re keeping track of them — it allows researchers to come back long after the fieldwork and apply new methods and learn new things from them,” Smith said. “That’s one of the main values of the lab — it’s a resource.”

Boston University assistant professor of archaeology David Carballo has worked at the lab for 17 years.

“I really got my start in Teotihuacan archeology through this lab,” Carballo said. “I started in 1999 with the Moon Pyramid project. I’ve been coming back off and on since. It’s an unparalleled resource for researchers of this city, and there’s new generations being trained all the time.

“Teotihuacan lives on in archaeology very much because of this lab and ASU’s efforts to maintain it and keep it going. All of my collections from the Tlajinga project are housed here. I can come down here with students and analyze them. We have storage space. We have space to analyze things. . ... Here we have many, many decades of minutiae of life at Teotihuacan. It can continue to be studied by coming generations.”


The lab is beginning to groan at the seams. It’s full, and it needs to expand. One of Carballo’s digs this summer yielded three to four boxes of artifacts for every 20 centimeters. (“No wonder the lab is full,” Smith commented.)

“You can see these boxes right here,” Smith said. “They’re sort of at the ends of shelves. ... With the new project, we don’t have any room to expand.”

Immediate needs are for more work and analysis space. The rule of thumb in archaeology is that every month of digging requires two to four months of artifact study. Add to that the march of technology. With new techniques, the lab’s collection still has much to offer in terms of discoveries.

“I’d like to see (the lab) continue to do what it’s doing and do it better,” Smith said.


Hear Smith speak in Tempe

What: "New Views of the Ancient City of Teotihuacan" lecture.

When: 6-8 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 31.

Where: Alumni Lounge (Room 202), Memorial Union, Tempe campus.

Details: Free and open to the public. Find more at the events site.