Monthly Archives: July 2015

Glacier NP fire 20 percent contained

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The Reynolds Fire, which began on July 21, is burning an area about six miles east of Logan Pass (the highest point on the Going-to-the-Sun Road which crosses the park). The fire has burned 3,158 acres and, as of 6:00 pm M.S.T. on July 26, it was about 20 percent contained. There are 570 total personnel on the scene including seven helicopters, 21 fire engines and four elite Hotshot crews.

An 18-mile section of the Going-to-the-Sun Road is closed, from Big Bend on the west side of the Continental Divide to St. Mary Visitor Center. Logan Pass and the Logan Pass Visitor Center, Rising Sun Campground and all Rising Sun facilities, St. Mary Campground and Visitor Center and The Highline Trail from Granite Park Chalet to Logan Pass are all closed. That seems like a lot but visitors, take heart, the majority of Glacier National Park is still unaffected by this wildfire.

Stay updated on the fire through InciWeb and the NPS Glacier homepage.

Photo courtesy of InciWeb.

Half the Park is after Dark!

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The sky’s the limit at these national parks known for stellar stargazing…

When I was in Big Bend last year one of the park’s most remarkable features came into focus only after the sun went down—the stars. When the sky darkened it seemed as if someone had hit a celestial light switch as a glowing dome formed overhead. Barely an inch of the heavens seemed untouched by gleaming pinpricks.

Big Bend is one the country’s seven ‘dark sky’ national parks which “are vital to the protection of wilderness character, fundamental to the historical and cultural context and critical for park wildlife,” says the National Park Service’s Natural Sounds and Dark Skies Division. Not only do nocturnal animals rely on darkness for survival but the circadian rhythms of plants, and of humans as well, require an unaltered night sky.

Due to light pollution in urban and suburban areas most people see, at most, a few hundred stars in a cloudless night sky. Dark Sky parks may boast upwards of 5,000 stars. As population centers expand so does artificial light disruption making these spots all the more rare and important.

Here are the nation’s officially designated “Dark Sky Parks” with links to find out more about each:

Big Bend National Park, Texas.

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico.

Death Valley National Park, Arizona. (At 3.4 million acres, the largest International Dark Sky Park)

Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, Arizona.

Hovenweep National Monument, Colorado and Utah.

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah. (The first International Dark Sky Park, designated in 2007)


Many other national parks host “star parties” and night sky viewing programs. Here are a bunch with links to their programs:

Acadia National Park, Maine

Arches National Park, Utah

Badlands National Park, South Dakota (Night skies are threatened here due to hydraulic fracturing operations pressing up against the borders of the park.)

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho

Denali National Park, Alaska

Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Great Basin National Park, Nevada

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Colorado

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota

Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, California

Yosemite National Park, California

Artist Tyler Nordgren created this amazing poster for his “See the Milky Way” campaign:


In its manifesto for a second century of greatness, one of goals of the NPS is to protect that forgotten natural resource—darkness—and to restore “starry nights” by managing ambient light within parks and in bordering communities. One big step in that direction was the creation of the America’s first Dark Sky Cooperative on the Colorado Plateau, in collaboration with several partner organizations.

Apparently, in the dark, there is still so much to see.




NPS photo of Dinosaur NM by Dan Duriscoe.



New national monuments announced

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The White House announced that President Obama used the Antiquities Act to designate three exciting new national monuments in California, Nevada and Texas protecting rich ecosystems, cultural sites, wildlife habitats and mammoth remains.

They are:

Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument in California:

This monument encompasses nearly 331,000 acres of public land in the heart of northern California’s Inner Coast Range. Rising from near sea level in the south to over 7,000 feet in the mountainous north, and stretching across nearly 100 miles and dozens of ecosystems, the area possesses a richness of species that is among the highest in California and has established the area as a biodiversity hotspot. Native Americans have inhabited the region for at least the last 11,000 years, and the monument will protect cultural sites emblematic of this important heritage. The area supplies water for millions of people and supports a wide range of outdoor activities, including hiking, hunting, fishing, camping, off-highway vehicle use, horseback riding, mountain biking and rafting. An independent economic report found that a monument designation is likely to increase visitation and could generate an additional $26 million in economic activity for local communities over five years. Local city and county governments, recreational, conservation, and cultural preservation groups, local chambers of commerce, and over 200 local businesses have supported protecting the area. The site will be jointly managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

Waco Mammoth National Monument in Texas:

This monument features remains of Columbian Mammoths from over 65,000 years ago, including the nation’s first and only recorded discovery of a nursery herd of mammoths.  These unique and well-preserved remains provide superlative opportunities for scientific study, including a rare opportunity to understand the behavior and ecology of the now extinct Columbian Mammoth, a dominant species in North America during the Pleistocene Epoch and the largest of all mammoth species. The excavation area also has produced remains from other animals of that epoch, including the Western Camel, Saber-toothed Cat, Dwarf Antelope, American Alligator, and giant tortoise. Local government, educational institutions, philanthropic organizations, and local businesses and tourism offices have demonstrated their strong support for protecting the site. The site will be managed by the National Park Service in cooperation with the City of Waco and Baylor University.

Basin and Range National Monument in Nevada:

This monument will protect approximately 704,000 acres of public land in of one the most undisturbed corners of the broader Great Basin region. Less than two hours from Las Vegas, this unbroken expanse attracts recreationists seeking vastness and solitude and provides significant wildlife habitat and migration corridors. The area tells the story of a rich cultural tradition, from the earliest human inhabitants 13,000 years ago to miners and ranchers in the past century. The monument features an array of cultural sites, including petroglyph and prehistoric rock art panels, and offers exemplary opportunities to further study and understand this unique landscape and its human inhabitants.The area is also home to City, one of the most ambitious examples of the distinctively American land-art movement.  Located on privately-held land in Garden Valley, the work by artist Michael Heizer combines modern abstract architecture and engineering with ancient American aesthetic influences. The monument also allows for the continuation of certain historic uses, including livestock grazing and military use.  Local private landowners, local elected officials, art institutions, conservation and recreation organizations, and representatives from major Nevadan and national businesses have supported protecting the area. The site will be managed by the Bureau of Land Management.


Photo courtesy of

Olympic NP fire one for the history books

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“Fire” and “rainforest” are not often seen in combination. But conditions have been unusual in Washington state–dry and warm following an early spring with low snowpack–allowing the spread of a lightning-caused fire.

The “Paradise Fire” has burned over 1,500 acres in Olympic National Park in the Queets River drainage, making it the largest fire since the area became a national park in 1938. The fire is in a designated wilderness area which would generally mean it was allowed to burn out on its own. But, according to InciWeb, the interagency site which reports on all current fire incidents, “The decision was made to suppress this fire because of extremely dry conditions and the fact that it started so early in the fire season.”

Fightfighters got some help from rain over the weekend in confining the fire but are quick to point out that the showers will not extinguish the blaze. The “heavier fuels” (including burning logs) will continue to burn until heavier precipitation moves in. “As the weather dries and warms in the weeks ahead, we can expect these smoldering heavy fuels to resume more active burning and pose a continuing risk of fire spread. Firefighters will remain on the fire for the foreseeable future, continuing the confinement strategy,” says InciWeb.


Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.



San Antonio Missions Now a World Heritage Site

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The World Heritage Committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) just designated a group of five Spanish colonial missions in the San Antonio area – including most of San Antonio Missions National Historical Park – as a World Heritage Site.

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell applauded the move saying, ““The San Antonio Missions is an extraordinary national and international treasure. The Missions interweave Spanish and indigenous cultures that are a vital part of America’s heritage.”

Learn more about San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.

Support your parks and the National Park Service.

Photo of San Antonio Missions © Heather Hansen.

Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island, NY

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This is a shivers-down-the-spine park where the concepts of freedom, adversity, opportunity and triumph play out in the riveting stories of the people–some famous, though most not– who have been linked to Liberty and Ellis islands spanning centuries.

At the Liberty Island Museum the enormous scale of planning and construction of the remarkable copper queen of New York Harbor is fully appreciated. At the Ellis Island Museum dramatic stories unfold of the many immigrant waves from 1892 to 1954. (Over 40 percent of living Americans can trace their roots to Ellis Island which directly links the park to the personal histories of over 120 million people!)

Some tips for your trip: Ferry and Liberty Island tickets must be booked in advance. There are different levels of access including grounds-only, pedestal access and crown access (which are often reserved up to six months in advance in warmer months). All tickets also allow access to neighboring Ellis Island. Be sure to allow enough time to clear security before boarding a ferry.

Note: Since Hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2012 the NPS has been working to replace electrical, communications and heating and cooling systems on Ellis Island. Many museum objects remain offsite until the repairs are complete, which is anticipated to be this December.

Photo and text © Heather Hansen

Let’s Close the National Parks

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History tends to repeat itself. A half-century ago national parks were receiving a record number of visitors but amid inadequate funding their facilities were falling apart.

One popular writer had a radical idea: “Let’s Close the National Parks” wrote Bernard DeVoto in the October 1953 issue of Harper’s Magazine. “The deterioration of roads and plants that began with the war years, when proper maintenance was impossible, has been accelerated by the enormous increase in visitors, by the shrinkage of staffs, and by miserly appropriations that have prevented both repair and expansion of facilities…[Congress] requires the Service to operate a big plant on a hot-dog-stand budget,” he wrote.

As a result, DeVoto said, “So much of the priceless heritage which the Service must safeguard for the United States is beginning to go to hell.” His proposed solution? “The national park system must be temporarily reduced to a size for which Congress is willing to pay. Let us, as a beginning, close Yellowstone, Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, and Grand Canyon National Parks—close and seal them, assign the Army to patrol them, and so hold them secure till they can be reopened.”

Today faced with slashed budgets, aging facilities and visitor throngs, the NPS and the individual parks it is mandated to protect face daily struggles. Is the solution, as DeVoto suggested over 50 years ago, to keep open only the parks for which Congress is willing to pay? If the outcry over park closures during a government shutdown in 2013 are any indication, this wouldn’t go over well with the many millions of Americans who want their parks open and accessible. But the mere suggestion still may be worth making. Just three years after DeVoto’s manifesto appeared, the NPS launched a $1 billion, congressionally-funded decade of maintenance and construction (called Mission 66) in advance of its 50th anniversary in 1966. No such overture has been made by Congress in advance of the park service’s 100th birthday next year. Is it time to close some parks to the public to get them the attention they deserve?

Photo courtesy of the NPS.

Put your money where your park is

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As parks across the country roll out fee hikes the NPS has heard some grumbling. But national parks—which include many of America’s best places—remain a phenomenal bargain. By comparison: weekly tickets for a family of four (two adults, two kids) to Walt Disney World will set them back over $1700. The entrance fee for that same family to spend a week in Yellowstone? $30. True, Disney has people dressed up like ducks, bears, a dog and a moose; but Yellowstone has real bears, moose, birds and wolves. Did I mention the park’s big-as-cars bison?

Roughly one-third of over 400 national parks charge an entrance fee (the others are free). Before this year, most of those haven’t gotten a raise in several years. Why now? In advance of its 100 anniversary next year the NPS, as well as their respective on-the-ground caretakers, want parks at their best. With a staggering $11.5 billion maintenance backlog system-wide to address, they’ve got a long way to go.

“Deferred maintenance” is work that has been postponed for more than a year and remains unresolved. That includes crumbling roads, trails, visitor centers (with their all-important bathrooms) and much more. What would it mean for visitors to Glacier National Park if the Going-to-the-Sun Road was inaccessible; or to Great Smoky Mountains National Park visitors if there were no passable trails to waterfalls or fall foliage?

Entrance fees, 80 percent of which stay in the park where they were collected, allow parks to target individual needs sans political volleying. That cash has become ever-important as annual federal budget allocations for the National Park Service have dwindled in the past several years. The autonomy allows park supervisors to provide a better visitor experience, with safe and well-functioning facilities and programs.

The extra revenue will only begin to address parks’ urgent needs but it’s progress. And shouldn’t all of us who are lucky enough to visit our parks be willing to pay a little extra for that?

Regardless of fee hikes at individual parks, the annual all-parks access pass is still $80, and a lifetime pass for those 62 and older is just $10. For the disabled and active duty military, admission to all parks remains free.

Find your park.

Support your parks and the National Park Service.

Learn about the history of parks and the NPS.

Photo courtesy of the NPS.

Bison-human conflicts on rise in Yellowstone

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Two more encounters this summer between bison and humans in Yellowstone National Park (bringing the total to four incidents) have led to injuries and prompted additional warnings by the National Park Service.

The vast majority of park visitors observe wildlife without incident. Stay in that majority by heeding this advice from the NPS: “Visitors should remember that while many of the bison and elk in the park may appear tame, they are wild animals and should never be approached. Bison can sprint three times faster than humans can run and are unpredictable and dangerous.

Park regulations require visitors stay at least 25 yards (23 m) away from all large animals – bison, elk, bighorn sheep, deer, moose, and coyotes and at least 100 yards (91 m) away from bears and wolves. If a visitor comes upon a bison or elk along a trail, boardwalk, parking lot, or in developed areas, visitors must give the animal at least 25 yards by either safely going around the animal or turning around, altering their plans, and not approaching the animal.”

Photo courtesy of the NPS.

Places of loss and inspiration

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When President Abraham Lincoln alighted at the Gettysburg Train Station on November 18, 1863 day was already giving way to darkness. He walked a block to the home of David Wills, attorney and school superintendent, who had invited the president to say “a few appropriate remarks” at the dedication of the nearby national cemetery that Wills had been instrumental in establishing. That now world famous speech–the drafting of which was completed in Wills’ home–is known as the Gettysburg Address.

At that time the train station had only been in operation for about five years but already it had seen plenty. It acted as a hospital during the devastating Battle Of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863) during which an an estimated 51,000 soldiers were killed, wounded, captured, or listed as missing. Many were transported through the station after the gunpowder had settled.

Standing in the small station today is a solemn experience, the ground as hallowed as the nearby cemetery and battlefield. When I visited it last fall I couldn’t believe such a moving and historically significant spot wasn’t part of the Gettysburg National Military Park. But late last December that changed with the passage of federal legislation which added the train station to the national park system.

Learn more about Gettysburg National Military Park.

Read the Gettysburg Address.


Photo courtesy Destination Gettysburg.