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Looking Back On 2010 Across the National Park System


From controversy over sea turtles, shorebirds and ORVs at Cape Hatteras National Seashore and dam demolition at Olympic National Park to continued restoration of the Everglades, a lot of news was generated across the National Park System in 2010. NPS photos.

What were the top stories across the National Park System in 2010? There were more than a few, ranging from the tragic loss of three Katmai National Park and Preserve employees in a small-plane crash to the ongoing controversy over whether birds, turtles, and off-road vehicles can co-exist at Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

Let's take a look back, in no particular order, through the year at some of the top stories.

* Cape Hatteras National Seashore Struggles To Develop ORV management plan

A proposed plan governing off-road vehicle access to the national seashore while also offering wildlife protection drew opposition from the groups that forced the National Park Service to develop the strategy and those interested in ORV access. While the final ORV plan was issued in November, the requisite regulations needed to implement it will not be ready on April 1 as a court decreed, meaning the interim rules will remain in place for next summer.

There is, of course, always the possibility that a lawsuit could challenge the plan and that would further delay resolution of this issue.

* Three Park Service employees die in single-engine plane crash off Katmai National Park and Preserve

Wreckage from a plane that went missing over Katmai National Park and Preserve in August was spotted in late September on the park's northern coast. Park Service officials said there was no indication that its four occupants survived the crash.

The three Park Service employees -- Mason McLeod and brothers Neal and Seth Spradlin -- had been working to tear down a deteriorating patrol cabin at Swikshak on the park's eastern coastline and were headed back to King Salmon when the plane piloted by Marco Alletto vanished on August 21. Another plane that departed the area 15 minutes later never received a transmission from Mr. Alletto. Weather conditions were so poor that the second plane flew only about 500 feet above ground on the way back to King Salmon.

During the course of the search roughly 50,000 air-miles were flown by crews looking for the missing craft.

* Yellowstone National Park embarks on yet another environmental impact study on winter-use

This perhaps deserves mention largely -- only? -- because of its longevity. Has any topic in the National Park System been studied more than winter-use in Yellowstone? A long-running series of lawsuits has kept this issue alive for more than a decade at a cost of more than $10 million.

The 2010-2011 winter season opened as scheduled in mid-December under a temporary winter-use plan that allows up to 318 commercially guided, "Best Available Technology" snowmobiles, and up to 78 commercially guided snowcoaches in the park daily. A draft of the latest EIS is expected sometime next spring.

* Mountain Goat Kills Hiker in Olympic National Park

Sixty-three-year-old Robert Boardman died after being gored by a mountain goat in October. A necropsy performed on the goat, which was killed by rangers, determined that the animal was in the fevered state of rut, but otherwise seemed to be a healthy animal.

While mountain goats and hikers long have passed close to one another in places such as Olympic and Glacier national parks, this marked the first time anyone could recall of a fatal encounter.

* White-nose syndrome threatens bats in National Park System

What should the Park Service do about white-nose syndrome? Should it ban human visitors from its caves? That's a debate-spurring question. But this disease has killed more than 1 million bats, and so far no good solutions have been developed to combat it.

As the disease continues to spread westward, Park Service officials are working to establish protocols that hopefully will both protect their bat colonies from infection and, if they are infected, from spreading it. While Mammoth Cave National Park continues to run cave tours, some units of the National Park System -- such as El Malpais National Monument -- are closing their caves to public access.

* Cold snap kills and stuns turtles, manatees off Florida national parks

Truly climate change, or merely fluky weather? Whichever, a cold snap last January led to the rescue of more than 2,100 sea turtles from the waters of Cape Canaveral National Seashore, and it seemed a repeat performance of the cold weather could be expected this winter in the Southeast.

Indeed, in late December a cold wave surged south into Florida, though there were no immediate reports of marinelife being impacted.

*Restoration of Elwha watershed in Olympic National Park gets under way

In what is seen as a massive, and historic, project, work got under way in 2010 on the dismantling of two dams in the park so work could commence on restoring the Elhwa River watershed. Upwards of $350 million is expected to be spent on the restoration project, which will allow 70 miles of river and tributaries to again be free-flowing, something that will enable five salmon species to reach their spawning grounds.

* National park visitors can legally carry firearms

In a move cheered by Second Amendment supporters, and feared by more than a few park visitors, Congress cleared the way, and President Obama went along, with a rule change to allow park visitors to carry firearms in the parks.

The regulation change, was approved in February. While it seemingly had little to no effect on visitation in the parks, there were some eye-brow-raising incidents. Some parks reported visitors showing off their sidearms to voice support for the 2nd Amendment, while in Glacier National Park a woman fired off a round from her .357 to scare off a "weird-acting deer," and in Denali National Park and Preserve two hikers killed a grizzly bear that reportedly charged them.

* Road to nowhere saga at Great Smoky Mountains National Park ends

In the end, which came in February, the "road to nowhere" didn't go anywhere. Once envisioned as a project that would allow families to visit cemeteries isolated by the creation of Fontana Lake, in the end the road proved to costly -- a $600 million figure was bandied about -- to justify for too few users.

Under the terms of the agreement between the Department of the Interior, Swain County, North Carolina, and Tennessee Valley Authority, the federal government will pay up to $52 million into a trust fund established for the county. Only the interest earned on that trust can be spent.

* National Parks Were Popular

Yellowstone set a record with more than 3.6 million visitors, Glacier set a record with more than 2.2 million, Yosemite closed in on 4 million visitors, as did Grand Canyon. And Great Smoky Mountains National Park had a strong year with some 9.5 million visitors despite a year often marked by road construction and detours. And those were just the name-brand parks.

Whether the higher visitation was spurred by economic conditions convincing folks to take vacations closer to home or merely a determination to enjoy these wonderful places, the head counts demonstrate the national parks are not irrelevant.

* Everglades Restoration Moves Forward With Scaled-Back Land Deal

More than a decade ago the Clinton administration promised to embark on an expansive, and expensive, plan to restore the Everglades. That project was seen as a way to restore, preserve, and protect the South Florida ecosystem while providing for other water-related needs of the region, including water supply and flood protection. With an estimated total cost of $10.7 billion to the federal government and $11.8 billion to the state of Florida, the initiative is the largest hydrologic restoration project in U.S. history.

While the massive restoration project has been moving forward in fits and starts, the Obama administration has promised to keep whittling away at it.

A $197 million land purchase aimed at improving water flows through the Everglades was approved in August by the South Florida Water Management District, but it falls far short of the original proposal, involving just 26,800 acres, a far cry from the initial 187,000 acres that were to have been purchased.

* Energy Development Slows To North, And West, Of Glacier National Park

Officials and politicians in British Columbia and Montana recognized the need to protect the wild lands to the west of Waterton Lakes National Park and Glacier National Park from mining and worked to place those lands off-limits. In February government officials from the province and state finalized an agreement to collaborate on protecting the environment of the Flathead River Basin from energy development. The agreement not only is designed to safeguard Glacier and Waterton Lakes from environmental contamination, but goes further, promising that the two will work on climate change issues as well as renewable energy solutions.

Still, a report from a United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization team says much more needs to be done to protect the parks from "ongoing threats to the property from possible impacts on wildlife connectivity arising from issues outside the property, including residential, industrial and infrastructure development, and forestry practices, in both Canada and the United States of America, and requests the State Parties to jointly ensure that connectivity is considered as a key factor in planning and environmental assessment of such developments, in order to ensure the protection of the Outstanding Universal Value of the property."

* Alaska Wildlife Control Wipes Out Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve Wolf Pack

In March a four-member wolf pack from the preserve was shot and killed by state predator control agents. After an investigation into the matter, state and Park Service officials said the shooting was the result of an honest mix-up.

The shooting came on the heels of a decision by the Alaska Board of Game to allow the trapping of wolves in a rectangular parcel of state land surrounded on three sides by Denali. The 90-square-mile section, just west of Healy, had been a popular spot for tourists hoping to see a wolf in the wild.

* Politics Continued to Swirl Around Public Lands

National parks were occasionally caught up in politics during 2010. U.S. Reps. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and Doc Hastings, R-Washington, insisted that environmental laws such as the Wilderness Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act were impeding Border Patrol operations in the Southwest in places such as Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. However, two Government Accountability Office reports concluded that was not the case, but rather the rough terrain, inter-agency communication woes, and a shortage of technology and personnel were hampering efforts to secure the border.

With the GOP taking over control of the House of Representatives in January, and Rep. Hastings taking over the chair of the House Natural Resources Committee and Rep. Bishop expected to chair the committee's national parks subcommittee, expect more debate over how best to manage public lands.

* They Cull Elk at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and Deer at Valley Forge

An overabundance of elk at Theodore Roosevelt and deer at Valley Forge led officials in both parks to resort to culling operations.

At Theodore Roosevelt, culling began in November when the first of 240 volunteers were guided into the park's South Unit with instructions to kill as many cow elk as they could. By early December some 200 elk had been culled, and officials were optimistic they could meet their goal of 275 elk by January 20, which marks the end of the first season of culling. The 15-year project is expected to cost the Park Service $1.5 million.

At Valley Forge, sharpshooters were tasked with reducing the historical park's deer herds from some 1,200 animals to about 165-185 during the next four years. The current phase calls for the sharpshooters to work from November through next March.

* Deepwater Horizon Disaster in Gulf of Mexico Sends Oil Towards NPS Units

The explosion of an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in April sent pools and gobs of oil onto the shores of Gulf Islands National Seashore, but fears that oil would blanket not only those shores by beaches at De Soto National Memorial, Dry Tortugas National Park, Biscayne National Park, and Everglades National Park proved unfounded.

The disaster did, though, prompt the relocation of rare Kemp's Ridley sea turtle eggs from the Gulf Coast to the Atlantic Coast.

While wildlife such as sea turtles and shorebirds were affected to a degree, the worst fears of massive kills were not realized, at least not in the months immediately following the spill.

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I am delighted that you chose the end of the North Shore Road saga in Great Smoky Mountains National Park as one of the top stories of the year.

However it is not truly over until Swain County gets all of its $52 million. Right now, it only has about $13 million and each additional dollar needs to be part of a Congressional appropriation.

Danny Bernstein

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