Monthly Archives: February 2015

The new, new parks

The White House announced this week the president’s designation of three new national monuments. Among them are an area significant for its role in labor history; a nearly forgotten internment camp; and a critical watershed in Colorado where the biodiversity includes golden eagles and bighorn sheep.

They are:

Pullman National Monument (Illinois)—This model factory town on Chicago’s South Side (complete with areas for whole families to work, live, shop, play and worship) rose in the 1880s as the Pullman Palace Car Company employed thousands in the building and running of its luxury railroad cars.

In addition to vastly improving the living and working conditions which were generally horrific in that era, Pullman hired former slaves as the first maids, porters and waiters. While inequality was still problematic the first African American middle class rose during this time and contributed significantly to the civil rights movement which followed.

The site again made history following the depression of 1893, with the Pullman strike of 1894, when workers protested the fact that their cost of living did not drop along with their wages. Federal troops put a violent end to the strike which led ultimately to the legislation creating Labor Day.

There’s much more to the Pullman story which visitors will be able to see unfold, in person, at the new monument. It’s an important site that touches on several fascinating periods in American history.

Honouliuli National Monument (Hawaii)—As the largest confinement camp used during World War II for Japanese American citizens, resident immigrants and prisoners of war, it’s hard to believe this site in not already in the national park system. This camp in a steep canyon near Pearl Harbor on Oahu has a lot of stories to tell, of fear and loss and acts that should never be repeated.

Browns Canyon National Monument (Colorado)—For more than a decade conservationists have been agitating for federal protection for this 22,000-acre area in central Colorado. It is a craggy, rambling stretch of the upper Arkansas River Valley which also happens to be one of the most popular whitewater runs in the country.

With the exception of Browns Canyon, which will be jointly managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, the new parks will be run by the NPS.

© Heather Hansen

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Worst national parks? Get real

Once you’re within South Carolina’s only national park it’s hard to believe the state capital, Columbia, is less than 20 miles away. Walking or paddling within Congaree National Park feels like winding back the hands of ecological time. The park surrounds the largest intact stretch of old growth bottomland hardwoods remaining in the southeastern U.S.

While trolling the park’s paths, the smell of loamy soil and primeval green glow are constant companions. With sunlight passing through a thick canopy of branches this place has the very real feel of a shelter, a haven. While logging operations were buzzing and chewing their way through the area in the 1960s a group of locals protested the harvesting of this biologically diverse patch of river floodplain. They understood the significance of the unique ecosystem with its creeping sloughs and creeks, tree-studded wetlands and oxbow lakes, which still provide critical habitat for countless species.

Congaree is many things but what it’s not–as a recent Yahoo blog post suggests–one of the nation’s “worst” national parks. Four other parks were relegated to that category: the beautiful Badlands, the improbable abundance of Death Valley, the restless rolling prairie of Wind Cave and (perhaps most ridiculous) the unspoiled expanses of Gates of the Arctic.

However tongue-in-cheek, the suggestion that any of these are unimportant wild spaces is a disservice to the entire national park system. Sure we all have favorite parks and maybe even some we don’t care to visit but individual whims don’t make them more or less valuable. (Imagine what the national park system would look like after nearly 150 years if it did.) We also may tire of ‘top 10’ lists yet misrepresenting the essence of these quirky, fascinating places is no more interesting or innovative.

Learn more about your 400+ national parks.

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© Heather Hansen


Out of One, Many

I came across this EarthCam the other day which gives a live feed from the top of the Washington Monument. It’s fun to look at on any ole day but right now gives a particularly captivating look at a current art installation on the National Mall. In the camera view, the work of artist Jorge Rodríguez-Gerada is on the left side of the Reflecting Pool. The dirt and sand portrait, called “Out of Many, One,” echoes the Latin phrase seen on the seal of the United States, “E Pluribus Unum.” The portrait was envisioned “to create a dialogue around the ideas of individuality, community, and place,” says Rodríguez-Gerada. It is of no one in particular and, at the same time, of every one.

It’s fitting the portrait was installed in the nation’s capital and at a national park. Its themes are alive and well throughout the monuments and memorials of the Capital Parks region of Washington, D.C. and at many more national park units which celebrate diversity. From the well-known Statue of Liberty National Monument (including Ellis Island) and Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial to the lesser-known African Burial Ground National Monument and César E. Chávez National Monument, dozens of national park units remind us of all the colors, cultures and credos which unite us in differentness. Frederick Douglass (whose life and work are interpreted at a phenomenal historic site) said, “We differ as the waves, but are one as the sea.”

See how the portrait looks from space, watch a video on how it was created, and read more from the artist at the Smithsonian National Portrait Galley site.

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© Heather Hansen

Wilderness emerges at Pt. Reyes

At Drakes Estero within Point Reyes National Seashore, the NPS is removing the remains of an oyster farm and restoring the coastal estuary. These wilderness waters are at the ecological heart of the park and restoration there will be a case study for future marine wilderness areas.

Read the story.

Learn more about Point Reyes National Seashore and the Drakes Estero Restoration.

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Photo credit: NPS / Jessica Weinberg McClosky

A once-in-a-century appearance

The rare, stunning Sierra Nevada red fox was spotted in Yosemite recently. The last time the elusive creature was seen there was during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency.

Read the story.

Learn more about Yosemite, a national park celebrating its 125th birthday this year.

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Photo courtesy NPS.


The NPS deserves a raise

How much are our national parks worth? Many would say they’re invaluable places at the core of conservation, preservation and recreation in America. Support for parks is broad (regardless of political affiliation, 95 percent of voters polled by the National Parks Conservation Association believe “protecting and supporting the National Parks” is an appropriate government role) but that doesn’t keep rangers on the job, does not adapt parks for climate change, does not begin to chip away at a multi-billion-dollar maintenance backlog. Heck, it doesn’t even keep the toilets flushing properly unless it’s backed by dollars.

In its latest ask, for Fiscal Year 2016–the year in which it celebrates its 100th birthday–the NPS has requested a 15 percent boost in funding. What for? “To repair an ageing infrastructure, respond to climate change, host school field trips, and provide rangers to greet nearly 300 million visitors with the highest standard of public service,” says NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis. It also wants to attract new park visitors from underrepresented populations like young people and people of color; develop new parks; and support volunteer efforts.

If it sounds like a lot, the 15 percent bump really only restores the NPS budget to the level it was at several years ago, before Congress turned a blind eye to the needs of parks and the prerogative of the general public. The equation is simple: as the keeper of 405 national parks, 23 national scenic and national historic trails, and 60 wild and scenic rivers, the NPS needs to be fully funded in order to steward these collectively owned resources into a new century of greatness. Are we willing to gamble on the alternative?

Learn more about the National Park Service and your parks.

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© Heather Hansen

Photo courtesy NPS/Michael Quinn.

Discoveries at our feet

Never before spotted on U.S. soil, the rare Trematodon laetevirens moss was found in Wrangell-St. Elias recently as part of a plant species inventory. It is one of many uncommon species which exist in national parks. Read more about that and other finds.

 Image provided by Brandon Gottung / NPS.

Restoring the Elwha

The NPS plans to install lookouts at the site of world’s largest dam removal project in Olympic National Park. Read more about the lookouts. Read more about restoring the Elwha—a legendary wilderness river and valley.