UW Promotes Research, Outreach at Venerable Grand Teton Center
August 9, 2012 — It’s 5:30 p.m. on a Thursday in late July, and Hank Harlow is starting to worry.
The speaker for the evening’s public seminar has yet to arrive, and Harlow is beginning to wonder if she’ll be on time. It’s not that the speaker might have forgotten or blown off the event; it’s just that it can be difficult getting to the University of Wyoming-National Park Service Research Center in Grand Teton National Park.
Harlow, longtime UW zoology professor and director of the research center, has been hosting these Thursday night seminars every summer for two decades. More than once, scheduled speakers haven’t been able to make it on time to this isolated, picturesque peninsula on Jackson Lake. So, he always has a contingency plan to make sure the dozens of seminar attendees leave with at least some nuggets of scientific information.
Fortunately, that’s not a big problem for Harlow. His decades of research include a wealth of fascinating topics, including three species of bears, eagles, wolves, coyotes, beavers, prairie dogs, vampire bats and Komodo dragons. He’s a perfect fill-in speaker; it’s just a matter of deciding what to talk about, and how to present it.
That won’t be necessary this night, though. The scheduled speaker -- Lusha Tronstad, research scientist with the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database at UW -- arrives in time, even early enough to grab a bite from the weekly pre-seminar barbecue. Her 6:30 p.m. presentation on the effects of wildfire on three streams in Yellowstone National Park goes off without a hitch and is received with great interest by the 50 or 60 people who’ve come to eat, listen and ask questions.
For Harlow, the summer seminar series is one of his biggest achievements in his 20 years as director of the UW-NPS Research Center in Grand Teton.
“It’s a way to reach out and show how science directly affects people. It puts science in the hands of the public,” says Harlow, who organized nine seminars this summer. “And, if you have an informed public, by gosh, you’ll have financial support to do more research.”
Depending upon the subject matter -- topics this summer included fish and elk management; an ancient campsite in Jackson Hole; high-elevation lakes in the Tetons; and bird hybridization -- the seminars attract from several dozen to as many as 175 people. They include visitors to Grand Teton who find out about the talks in the Jackson newspaper and NPS publications, as well as local residents for whom the seminars are part of their weekly summer routine.
Gordon and Jane Hall of Clinton Township, Mich., were staying at the nearby Colter Bay RV campground when they read about the seminar series. They enjoyed the first presentation so much that they cut short a trip into Yellowstone to return to the Grand Teton research center to catch a second seminar the following week.
“We’re concerned about the park, and these are the kinds of things we enjoy coming to,” Gordon Hall says.
Meanwhile, Moran residents Anne Lippold and Gretchen Neuman attend almost every week -- and have been doing so for years.
“I love being here. I learn a lot,” says Lippold, a former biology teacher. “It’s very stimulating. Plus, I like the ambiance. It’s such a beautiful setting.”
Indeed, the location of the research center couldn’t be more idyllic. It is housed in historic National Park Service buildings at the former AMK Ranch, with Jackson Lake and the Tetons as a backdrop. One lodge was built in 1932, the other in 1937, and 12 of the 14 structures that make up the complex are on the National Register of Historic Places.
Harlow, who lives at the center for four to five months each year, works with a small staff to maintain the facilities while assisting visiting researchers and doing research of his own. A part-time employee, Rich Viola, works year-round to maintain the aging buildings.
Harlow is accompanied every summer by his wife, Mary Ann, a longtime UW reference librarian.
“Lots of people come to visit, and it’s so much fun to entertain here,” says Mary Ann, who’s developed a small branch of UW Libraries for researchers at the center. “It’s a lot of fun hanging out with biologists and other researchers.”
At any given time during the summer, the research center serves as a base for 50 to 60 scientists. UW researchers in a wide variety of fields -- including earth sciences and social sciences -- use the center regularly. Others, from all over the world, come as well to conduct research in the pristine aquatic and terrestrial environments of the greater Yellowstone area.
The center provides housing, lab space, equipment and transportation for visiting scientists. For example, the morning after her presentation, Harlow transported Tronstad across Jackson Lake to the Tetons so Tronstad could collect samples from high-elevation streams as part of a research project for the Park Service. Harlow also administers a small competitive grants program for researchers, and he supervises several interns.
“This is the only real facility for researchers in the greater Yellowstone area,” Harlow says. “It’s great being associated with a diversity of people interested in the sciences. They all love what they do, and they love being here.”
UW in Grand Teton
The UW-NPS Research Center traces its roots to 1948, when the Jackson Hole Research Station was launched as the first research facility at a national park. In 1953, UW joined in operating and sponsoring the station and its research program at the Jackson Hole Biological Research Station. In 1977, the headquarters were moved to the AMK Ranch, and the UW-NPS Research Center was established.
Harlow is aware of only two other research centers administered by universities within national parks. He sees the UW-NPS partnership as valuable to both the university and the Park Service. It’s crucial for the state’s only university to have a presence in the greater Yellowstone area, he says. And UW is able to “help provide a research staff” for Grand Teton.
Last year, UW and NPS officials signed a cooperative agreement to allow the research center to evaluate and discuss future plans for the station on a 15-year basis.
Grand Teton National Park’s commitment to the research center over the years has been of paramount importance, says Bill Gern, UW’s vice president of research and economic development. And it’s a two-way street: Grand Teton helps fund the small grants program, along with a contribution from Yellowstone National Park.
“They recognize the important role of science in informing policy decisions which may have to be made by the National Park Service,” Gern says.
Harlow acknowledges that supervising the research center can be “like running a hotel.” But he still manages to fit in research of his own. And his summer experiences in northwest Wyoming have helped him “bring research into teaching” during the rest of the year when he’s on campus in Laramie.
A member of UW’s faculty since 1981, Harlow has been honored numerous times for teaching and research excellence, including the 2012 George Duke Humphrey Distinguished Faculty Award -- UW’s highest faculty honor.
When he began working as director of the UW-NPS Research Center in 1993, Harlow says he planned to fill the job for only two years. But he found that the task of building the center’s research and community outreach profile -- including the seminar series, which began as informal gatherings in the front room of a former director’s home -- kept bringing him back, year after year.
As for the future, Harlow expects to see UW continue its partnership with the Park Service. While the aging buildings present maintenance challenges -- for example, a significant water and sewer system upgrade is needed -- he sees potential for the research program to grow. UW is beginning work on an environmental assessment to explore the possibility of building a dormitory to house researchers.
“The profile and recognition that UW gets from having this is important,” Harlow says. “Lot of biological research centers are operated by universities around the country, but very few of them are in a national park.”
University of Wyoming Professor Hank Harlow, accompanied by his wife, UW reference librarian Mary Ann Harlow, has directed the UW-National Park Service Research Center in Grand Teton National Park for 20 years. (UW Photo)