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Top Stories Of 2016: Celebration And Challenges In The National Park Service

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President Barack Obama visited Yosemite National Park this summer to celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service/NPS, Damon Joyce

On a crystal-clear day in the heart of Yosemite Valley, President Barack Obama sang the praises of our national parks. With his family along for the Father’s Day weekend trip, Obama told a sun-drenched crowd, “It’s almost like the spirit of America itself is right here.”

Three months later, one of the darkest chapters in the 100-year history of the National Park Service culminated in Washington, D.C., where a House committee heard stories of sexual harassment, bullying, gender bias, and favoritism.

A year of festivities took a somber turn, with the spotlight both emphasizing the beauty and exposing the ugly.

While the Park Service drew widespread acclaim — and record visitation — as it marked its centennial in 2016, the agency was forced to confront myriad challenges, some of its own making: a hostile work environment, encroachment from development within and outside park borders, wildlife and wilderness management, vandalism, deteriorating infrastructure, and wildfires at some of the busiest parks, including the deadly blaze just after Thanksgiving at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Even some beneficial aspects of the centennial celebration exacerbated issues within the parks. The Find Your Park marketing campaign and a pass granting every fourth-grader free access drove massive crowds to the parks, hopefully building a new generation of park evangelists. However, the surge stressed the capabilities of a shrinking staff of rangers while testing the patience of visitors, some of whom waited in miles-long lines at entrance stations.

"The experience is being affected," Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk said this summer.

Also being affected is worker morale, which continues to lag near the bottom of all federal agencies. The testimony of sexual harassment and a toxic work culture led to the resignation of superintendents at two of the system’s crown jewels, Yosemite and Grand Canyon. But the problems went all the way to the top, as Director Jonathan Jarvis was reprimanded for ethics violations and did not represent his agency at the congressional hearing.

Perhaps the greatest birthday gift came from the Quimby family, whose donation of 87,000 acres in Maine’s North Woods brought the designation of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. Whether more parks or monuments will be created in the near future is uncertain with the ascension of Donald Trump to the Oval Office. In addition, the Park Service will seek a new leader, with Jarvis is set to retire in January.

But before the calendar turns to 2017, let’s take a look back at the top stories from 2016.

Park rangers across the country helped support thousands events to mark the National Park Service's centennial/NPS, Kristi Rugg

Centennial Celebration

Centennial Series | Forward Into The Next Century

The candles have all been blown out, the balloons popped, and nothing but crumbs are left from the many birthday cakes that marked the National Park Service’s 100th birthday. Now what? Now it is time to restore the National Park Service into what it was always meant to be — an agency committed to protecting the crown jewels of America against anything injurious to their grandeur.

Related stories:

President Obama Designates National Monument In Maine's North Woods

A wide, wild swath of Maine's North Woods on Wednesday became the country's newest national monument, as President Obama used his authority under The Antiquities Act to designate Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.

Related stories:

With Record Crowds At Iconic National Parks, Some Calling For Entry Quotas

Traffic stretching more than three miles from a national park entrance station. Parking areas inside some national parks filling by 10 a.m. National park superintendents acknowledging that the visitor experience is being impacted. If there was any doubt that America's national parks are popular with tourists, this summer's traffic erased it.

Traveler's View: Passage Of Centennial Act A Good Start, And Hopefully Just The Beginning

Last-minute passage by Congress of the National Park Service Centennial Act stands to have lasting benefits for the National Park System, and we can only hope that it's the first of much-needed legislation to bolster the health and infrastructure of the parks.

Related story:

A long-running episode of sexual harassment prompted the superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park to retire/NPS, Mark Lellouch

Workforce

House Committee Grills National Park Service Deputy Director Over Misconduct

The National Park Service's sordid underbelly of harassment was dissected for more than two hours Thursday by members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which heard stories of perpetrators being promoted and no one being fired for sexual harassment in the agency.

Related stories:

OIG: National Park Service Director Skirted Ethics Office In Writing Book, Reprimanded

An investigation has found that National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis intentionally skirted the Interior Department's Ethics Office to write a book, a Guidebook to American Values and Our National Parks, for a cooperating association contractually tied to the Park Service, an action that brought the director an official reprimand from top Interior Department officials, who also removed him from any dealings with the Park Service's ethics office for the rest of his career as director.

Related stories:

IOG: National Park Service's Northeast Regional Director Committed Travel Fraud

Michael Caldwell, the National Park Service's Northeast Regional director, acknowledged that he commited fraud in running up nearly $11,500 in personal travel that he billed the Park Service for and also collected nearly $6,000 in pay and per diem on these travels rather than taking vacation time, according to the Interior Department's Office of Inspector General.

National Park Service Inches Up A Bit In Best Places To Work In Federal Government Survey

While an employee survey has very slightly given the National Park Service a higher score in the annual Best Places to Work in the Federal Government review, the agency is mired in the bottom 25 percent of the more than 300 agencies polled and is dead last among the 12 bureaus within the Interior Department.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials are working to remove Endangered Species Act protections from grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which includes Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks/Deby Dixon

Wildlife

USFWS Proposal To Delist Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem Grizzly Bears Controversial

They are both breathtaking and fearful, an economic boon and an apex predator, and so we should not be surprised by controversy surrounding a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service effort to remove Endangered Species Act protections from grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Related stories:

Did National Park Service Overlook Court Rulings In Abdicating Wildlife Management Responsibilities At Grand Teton?

A National Park Service decision that gave Wyoming officials control over wildlife management on private and state lands within Grand Teton National Park seems to have sidestepped historic negotiations that led to today's Grand Teton National Park, as well as longstanding court rulings that have upheld the Park Service's authority to manage all wildlife within a park, even on non-federal lands.

Related story:

Moose And Wolves: Managing For Wilderness Values At Isle Royale National Park

Daytime temperatures at Isle Royale National Park were forecast to warm up to no more than 6 degrees Fahrenheit on Sunday, a biting cold that, if it got no warmer at the national park for a month or so, just might solve the National Park Service's quandary over what to do about an apex predator, the wolf, that is about to blink out on the island.

A Grizzly-Sized Hole In The Landscape Of Yellowstone

There was a large grizzly bear that roamed Yellowstone National Park, purposeful in his long stride. His profile distinct, due to the indentation of the collar he normally wore, his thin neck and long nose, and a mangled right ear and scars on his face from a battle. Every spring this bear would appear in Lamar Valley, walking beside the Lamar River, stopping to glance down at swollen water that was rushing by, as if looking for a bridge to cross, before moving on. He covered a lot of ground in a very short period of time and we never knew where Scarface was going. But he did, often putting nose to air and finding a carcass miles away.

Related story:

The Real Story About The Bison Calf That Took A Ride In The Car

I spotted a bison calf near the road and all alone. The calf was bawling and looking for its mother, but there were no other bison anywhere close by. Instantly, I knew three things; that the calf was orphaned or had become separated from its mother. That the calf would not be adopted by another cow and could not survive alone, and so it was just a matter of time before it died or was killed. And, that I wanted a photo of that calf, in order to remember its short life.

In the Final Hours Before Silence Comes, Forever

Early on a March morning, about 75 bison grazed peacefully inside a fenced enclosure at the Stephens Creek bison operations facility in Yellowstone National Park, unaware that their final journey was about to begin.

Related story:

Permit Issued To Kill Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area Mountain Lion

In the quilt of public and private lands that fall within the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, wild and domestic animals live relatively side-by-side. But when animals such as mountain lions view alpacas and goats as meals, California officials can essentially sign death warrants for the cats. That's been done in the case of P-45, a mountain lion thought to be responsible for the recent predation of 11 alpacas and a goat.

Dozens Of Eggs Taken From Sea Turtle Run Over At Cape Hatteras National Seashore Hatched

Scraps of egg shells told the story: though their mother was killed when a vehicle drove over her on a Cape Hatteras National Seashore beach, some of the 172 eggs taken from the green sea turtle and placed in a sandy nest survived the ordeal to incubate, hatch, and make it into the Atlantic Ocean.

Related story:

US Fish And Wildlife Service To Reconsider Wolverine For ESA Protections

Six months after a federal judge ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service erred in its decision to deny Endangered Species Act protections for wolverines, the agency is reconsidering the matter and revisiting a past proposal to give the small predator a "threatened" designation under the act.

An oil and gas survey in Big Cypress National Preserve could adversely impact the endangered Florida panther/NPS

Encroachment

Traveler Special Report: Separating Oil And Water At Big Cypress National Preserve

While Everglades National Park is off-limits to oil and gas exploration due its "national park" status, Big Cypress is not. And a recently approved plan to search for oil on 110 square miles of Big Cypress will test the National Park Service's ability to balance the unimpairment of these resources while also permitting the "enjoyment of privately owned oil and gas interests."

Related story:

Company Applies For Permit To Build Oil Refinery Near Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Plans to build an oil refinery, with supporting infrastructure that would include 1,000 residential units and a commercial development, just three miles from the entrance to Theodore Roosevelt National Park are moving forward, with the company filing its application for a permit to start construction on the proposed Davis Refinery.

Related stories:

Renewed Effort To Build Tramway At Grand Canyon Draws Concern

A renewed effort has been launched within the Navajo Nation to have a tramway built from the rim of the Grand Canyon down to the bottom at the confluence of the Little Colorado and Colorado rivers.

Related story:

Cell Phone Tower Issue At Theodore Roosevelt National Park Raises Questions Of Connectivity In National Parks

If you carry a cell phone into a national park, should you expect connectivity? Many people would answer "yes." But what if you hiked into a wilderness area, which is supposed to be free of today's human technologies?

Related story:

Op-Ed | The True Meaning Of Soda Mountain: The White House Is Giving Away Our Public Lands

For the sake of argument, let us agree with the Obama Administration that the Earth is warming up. Should we respond by being scared or cautious and, if scared, exactly what should we be frightened of? Frankly, I am frightened of my president, who goes about justifying huge conversions of our public lands to subsidize wind farms and solar power plants.

Related story:

Bridge And Boardwalk To Span Brooks River At Katmai National Park Gets Park Service Approval

A plan to spend more than $5 million on a bridge and boardwalk across the Brooks River in Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska that drew criticism will move forward, as the National Park Service has issued a contract to an Anchorage construction company to build the structure.

Groups Hope To Prevent Nuclear Power Plant Expansion Next To Biscayne, Everglades National Parks

Florida Power & Light, which earlier this year had to deal with water pollution from its Turkey Point Nuclear Power Plant near Biscayne and Everglades national parks, is proposing to add two units to the facility. A review of the plans by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission cited various adverse environmental impacts that could occur, but didn't view any as calamitous.

Related story:

Restoring The Everglades Will Benefit Both Humans And Nature

Everglades National Park is our only national wetland park, and one of the largest aquascapes in the world. Perhaps more than any other U.S. national park, Everglades' treasures are hard to defend. Lying at the southern end of an immense watershed the size of New Jersey, Everglades National Park is caught between the largest man-made water project in the world upstream and a rapidly rising ocean downstream.

Related story:

Obama Administration Withdraws 30,000 Acres Near Yellowstone From New Mining Claims

Obama administration officials, in a move welcomed by the business and conservation community near Yellowstone National Park, moved Monday to block mining on roughly 30,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service just north of the park, though the action won't necessarily keep two gold mines from going in on private lands in the area, including one that would be visible from the park's north entrance.

Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis hands out Every Kid in a Park passes at Hamilton Grange National Memorial in Harlem/NPS

Government

How Will A Trump Administration Treat The National Park System?

With both visitation and pride in the national parks up this year thanks to the National Park Service's centennial, how the incoming Trump administration will view the parks and other federal lands is drawing attention, and some concern, from onlookers in the parks community.

Related story:

President Obama's Public Lands Legacy

The Obama administration likes to tout that the president has protected nearly 550 million acres of public lands during his tenure, but observers say that number tells an uneven story of President Obama's environmental legacy, and add that the Democrat can and should accomplish much more before he leaves the White House.

Maintenance Backlog Reaches $11.9 Billion, National Park Service Says

Although increased congressional funding has been committed ahead of the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary celebration, “the annual bill for maintenance in America’s national parks is still almost twice as much as is appropriated,” Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis said.

Second Year Of Every Kid In A Park Launched For 2016-2017

As part of President Obama’s commitment to protect our nation’s unique outdoor spaces and ensure that every American has the opportunity to visit and enjoy them, the Obama Administration has launched the second year of the Every Kid in a Park program, which gives fourth graders and their families free access to federal lands and waters nationwide for a full year.

Improper management and protection of cultural resources at Effigy Mounds National Monument points to a larger problem of how the National Park Service manages cultural resources across the entire National Park System/NPS

Park Management

Are National Parks An Appropriate Backdrop For Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit Issue?

Until recently, national parks have been left out of the Swimsuit Issue, and generally have been promoted by media as wonderful family destinations. But in 2014 the sports magazine requested, and received permission, to shoot in Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Bryce Canyon national parks for its 2015 Swimsuit Issue.

Report On Effigy Mounds National Monument Points To A Service-Wide Problem With Cultural Resources

Towards the bottom of a 50-page report examining how managers of Effigy Mounds National Monument could have cast aside concerns of archaeological resources in a site rich with them and which was established to protect them is a disturbing admission: the National Park Service as a whole is dysfunctional when it comes to cultural resources management.

Related stories:

National Parks Are Managed In Very Inconsistent Ways...Or Are They?

National parks can be confusing, contradictory places when it comes to what is allowed and what isn't, what is vocally supported and what is condemned as creeping commercialism.

Cattle Grazing At Point Reyes National Seashore Challenged In Lawsuit

Less than two years after an oyster-farming operation was shut down in Point Reyes National Seashore following a dispute that was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, three environmental groups are challenging the National Park Service over the planned renewal of leases to cattle-ranching and dairy operations that have existed on the coastal California peninsula for 150 years.

Judge Upholds Olympic National Park's Maintenance Work On Historic Structures In Official Wilderness

A federal judge has agreed with the National Park Service's reasoning behind a decision to repair five historic buildings located in official wilderness in Olympic National Park, holding that the agency "made a reasoned finding of necessity by determining both that the structures are necessary to preserve historic values in Olympic National Park and that it was necessary to repair each one."

Conservation Groups Lose Fight For Wilderness At Big Cypress National Preserve

National Park Service managers relied on their expertise and did not violate either the Wilderness Act nor the National Park Service Organic Act when they decided how many miles of off-road vehicle trails would be allowed in the Addition Lands of Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida, the 11th U.S. District Court of Appeals has ruled.

Move To Change Access To Fiery Furnace In Arches National Park Draws Ire

A move Superintendent Kate Cannon believes will lead to better management of visitation to the Fiery Furnace in Arches National Park has drawn the ire of guiding businesses and a member of Congress, who see the changes as unnecessary and economically crippling to the guides and damaging to the unique geologic niche of the park.

Golden Gate National Recreation Area Finalizes Dog Leash Regulations

In a decision that quickly drew condemnation, officials at Golden Gate National Recreation Area in California have settled on a plan to manage dogs that provides for both off-leash and on-leash areas in the sprawling recreation area.

Traveler's View: National Park Service Wrong To Permit Zion Bike Race

Zion National Park, one of the most crowded and congested units of the National Park System in summer, one where visitors can spend an hour or more simply waiting to get into iconic Zion Canyon, will temporarily close public access on August 1 to allow for a professional bike race.

Boating Industry Aims To Block Marine Reserve At Biscayne National Park

A congressional effort has been launched to block a plan by Biscayne National Park officials to set aside 6 percent of the park for a marine reserve in a bid to restore and protect a stretch of the only tropical coral reef system in the continental United States, and the boating and fishing industry has quickly jumped on board in support of the legislation.

Firefighters, some from as far away as Utah, were called in to help battle forest fires in Great Smoky Mountains National Park/NPS

Disasters and Recovery

600 Fighting Chimney Tops 2 Fire At Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Chimney Tops 2 Fire had a footprint of 17,109 acres, with all but about 6,000 acres inside the national park and the rest in Sevier County, Tennessee. The fire, which was reported November 23, ripped through Gatlinburg, Tennessee, on Monday night and into Tuesday, leading to 13 deaths and destroying nearly 900 homes, officials said.

Related stories:

Not Since 1988 Have So Many Acres Burned In Yellowstone National Park

The nearly two dozen fires that were spotted in Yellowstone National Park this year burned more than 62,000 acres, a total not seen in one year since the historic fires of 1988 swept the park.

Long Road To Recovery For Scotty's Castle At Death Valley National Park

When Albert Johnson had his villa built in Grapevine Canyon in what is now Death Valley National Park, floods likely were not factored into the design. Nevertheless, the Mission Revival-influenced "castle" held up remarkably well during the torrential rains and flooding of last October. The same, however, cannot be said of the infrastructure surrounding the 32,000-square-foot mansion.

Winter Damage Will Limit Access At Olympic National Park This Summer

Spring is just around the corner, but Olympic National Park is still dealing with damage from one of the wettest, stormiest winters on record, leaving roads inaccessible and keeping some campgrounds closed for the summer.

A Canadian who walked along fringes of Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park was fined more than $8,000/NPS

The Rest

Yosemite Trademark Dispute Could Drag On Into 2017

If neither Delaware North Cos. nor the National Park Service blinks in their standoff over trademarks to iconic place names in Yosemite National Park, don't be surprised if the dispute drags on into 2017.

Related story:

Michael Frome, A National Advocate For Environmental Stewardship, Dead At 96

Michael Frome, a journalistic giant in environmental circles who lamented the over-development of national park landscapes and who was among the best at tracking the country's environmental evolution, has died at 96 after months of failing health.

Oregon Man Just Wanted To "Dip His Toe" In A Yellowstone Hot Spring

An Oregon man who died when he fell into a thermal feature in Yellowstone National Park just wanted to "dip his toe into the hot spring," according to his sister.

Two "High On Life" Vandals Plead Guilty In Connection With Yellowstone, Death Valley Incidents

Two of five High On Life pranksters who were cited for vandalism in Yellowstone and Death Valley national parks pleaded guilty Tuesday, but the other three entered not guilty pleas and were to be appointed court attorneys.

'Creepytings' Vandal Pleads Guilty To Defacing Western National Parks

The woman who painted and drew on rock formations in Western national parks in 2014 pleaded guilty Monday to defacing government property, according to the National Park Service. She was sentenced to two years probation and 200 hours of community service.

Devils Hole Vandals Facing Felony Charges

Three men videotaped trespassing at the Devils Hole unit of Death Valley National Park face a range of felony charges, from killing an endangered species and destruction of property to being an ex-felon in possession of a firearm.

Interior Secretary Cautions All Employees To Be Cautious In Wake Of Malheur Verdict

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, "profoundly disappointed" with the verdict in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge trial, on Friday cautioned her workforce across all land-management agencies to "take care of yourselves and your fellow employees. The armed occupation in Oregon was and continues to be a reminder that employees in all offices should remain vigilant and report any suspicious activity to your supervisor and, where appropriate, law enforcement officials."

Familiar Bryce Canyon National Park Hoodoo Falls From Grace

One of Bryce Canyon National Park's iconic hoodoos is no more, having fallen victim to time and frost wedging. Park officials in Utah reported Tuesday morning that "The Sentinel," a slender hoodoo long visible in the Navajo Loop not far from Thor's Hammer, toppled overnight.

"Sentinel," The Landslide That Filled Zion Canyon

Imagine a 2.5-mile-long lake in Zion Canyon, one nearly 400 feet deep that shimmered in the canyon for roughly 700 years. It's hard to grasp. But even harder to envision is a mountainside peeling off the face of what is known today as the Sentinel in Zion National Park and filling the valley floor in seconds with 286 million cubic meters of rock and dirt. It happened, in less than a minute, the rock slide whooshing down at a peak speed of perhaps 200 mph, crushing and burying everything, and anyone, in its path.

Have You Ever Heard Rainbow Bridge National Monument Hum?

Winds, waves, and earthquakes all contribute to a "humming" sound that occasionally emanates from Rainbow Bridge in southern Utah, according to University of Utah researchers.

Measuring Trash By Mammoths At Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument

So much junk and trash has been hauled out of Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument that Superintendent Jon Burpee came up with a unique way of tracking it. Noting that a male adult mammoth that walked this landscape near Las Vegas during the Late Pleistocene age about 12,000 years ago weighed roughly 20,000 pounds, the superintendent said last week that, "We’ve removed 37.5 'mammoth weight' of trash from the park this year.”

"Larry," A 13,000-Year-Old Mammoth, Discovered At Channel Islands National Park

A team of scientists has unearthed an exceptionally well-preserved fossil of a complete mammoth skull from an eroding stream bank on Santa Rosa Island within Channel Islands National Park off the California coast.

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