published Friday, December 30th, 2011

Funding crunch endangers species study

GATLINBURG, Tenn. — A detailed examination of life forms in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park could be imperiled by funding shortages.

The All-Taxa Biodiversity Study has documented 915 species that are new to science. But nearly 15 years in, money is tight, according to The Knoxville News Sentinel.

The study is run by the nonprofit Discover Life in America, which estimates the park could contain up to 70,000 species but said financial issues could crimp verification of them.

The project is funded exclusively through contributions.

Some 5,000 scientists have been involved as researchers seek to document all species in the park. The work consumes about $200,000 annually, despite liberal use of volunteers.

“Even for us who are right in the middle of it, if you think about how big [the project’s scope] is, you get sort of a deer-in-the-headlights look,” said Todd Witcher, executive director of Discover Life in America.

The National Park Service financed the project until the end of 2010. But because of its own funding woes, the federal agency first halved its support and cut it in half again before completely ending it.

“They certainly did give us a chance to react, and react we did. We’re still working on building our fundraising way of survival,” Witcher said.

Becky Nichols, an entomologist with the park service, said 196 peer-reviewed scientific publications on many aspects of science have come out of the project, but she knows funding concerns could put a stop to that.

Nichols wants to focus on writing more grant applications to help support Discover Life in America.

Phil Francis, now the superintendent of Blue Ridge Parkway, was stationed in the Smokies when the study began. He said information flowing from the study provides a better understanding of the park, which inspires better overall park management.

“It’s an important endeavor,” Francis said. “I think in the future it may help us recognize how the park is being impacted by air quality or use. It may help us decide where we should put trails, even maybe where we shouldn’t put trails.”

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