Mammoth Cave Surpasses 400 Miles In Length

Mammoth Cave is the largest cave system in the worldThe National Park Service has announced that the official length of Mammoth Cave now surpasses 400 miles as ten miles of newly mapped chambers and passageways were recently added to the cave complex. Park officials say that these additional miles were the result of a series of smaller, more incremental finds, and were not the result of a single major discovery. Exploration and mapping of these new areas were conducted in partnership with the Cave Research Foundation.

Carved out of the central Kentucky limestone, Mammoth Cave was already the longest cave system in the world prior to the addition of these new discoveries. In fact, it is so large that it is more than twice the size of the next longest cave. Mammoth’s massive underground complex attracts thousands of visitors on a yearly basis ranging from curious travelers to full-fledged explorers and spelunkers. Some of its more famous locations even have names, such as the massive Grand Avenue and the aptly named Fat Man’s Misery.

The Park Service conducts daily tours of Mammoth lasting anywhere from one to six hours in length. Some of those tours are along relatively easy-guided paths while others venture far into the darkness to decidedly more challenging and cramped places. The popular Grand Avenue tour for instance is a 4-mile, four-hour trek that is physically demanding, while the hike to the beautiful Frozen Niagara is a much easier quarter-mile walk that is safe enough for both children and older visitors. Both provide fantastic views of the interior of the cave that simply must be seen to be believed.

If you’re looking for a destination for an upcoming trip to a national park this summer, Mammoth Cave National Park is one of those places that will delight and amaze the entire family.

[Photo Credit: The National Park Service]

Sequestration Will Have Deep Impact On National Parks

Budget sequestration on the national parks will have a deep and lasting impactA few weeks ago we shared leaked documents that gave us a glimpse of how the looming budget sequestration could impact America’s national parks. Those documents indicated that the National Park Service would implement a hiring freeze, push back the hiring of seasonal help and possibly cut hours and services in order to deal with the potential lack of funds. At the time, we speculated that those choices could have an impact on the overall experience for park visitors this year but as more details emerge it seems that reduced staff is just the tip of the iceberg.

According to a new report from the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees (CNPSR), the same source that shared the original leaked documents, the direct impact of sequestration on some of the country’s top national parks is becoming much clearer – not to mention grimmer. Some of the specific cuts include a delayed opening of some of the roads into Yellowstone this spring, which would affect more than 78,000 visitors and reduce revenues by $150,000. Similarly, the Grand Canyon would see delayed openings of its East and West Rim Drives, turning away an additional 250,000 visitors as well.

Delayed openings are just the start of the issues that travelers could be facing this year, however, as other parks will be closing down certain areas altogether. For instance, Grand Teton National Park will shutter two visitor centers and a preserve, impacting a combined 300,000 visitors, while Cape Cod National Seashore will close a visitor center as well, turning away 260,000 travelers. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park will have to operate without five campgrounds that typically house 54,000 visitors on an annual basis and Mt. Rainier will close its Ohanapecosh Visitor Center, which serves 85,000 people each year.

The CNPSR report has even more information on the impact of sequestration, which automatically goes into effect on March 1 provided the President and Congress aren’t able to come to a budget compromise first. The document is a sobering read for fans of the national parks to say the least. I recommend that anyone planning a visit to one of the parks this year checks in ahead of time to find out exactly what services are being cut due to a lack of funds.

[Photo Credit: National Park Service]

Yosemite’s Largest Glacier Has Stopped Advancing

Yosemite's Lyell GlacierFor years we’ve heard environmental scientists and researchers tell us how climate change is having a profound effect on glaciers across the globe. In many parts of the planet, increased temperatures have caused the giant sheets of ice to dramatically recede or disappear altogether. That process has now begun to take place in one of America’s most iconic landscapes – Yosemite National Park.

Last week, the National Park Service announced that Lyell Glacier, the largest inside the park, has stopped advancing and is losing substantial mass. The NPS, working in conjunction with the University of Colorado, conducted a four-year study of the glacier, measuring its movement by placing stakes along the ice and recording their positions. Over that four-year period, those stakes didn’t move at all. The study also conducted research on the nearby Maclure Glacier, which runs adjacent to Lyell. The findings indicate that it is still advancing at a rate of about one inch per day, despite the fact that it has lost nearly 60% of its mass as well.

Glaciers build up over thousands of years due to the accumulation of ice and snow in mountainous areas. When they grow large enough their mass, combined with melt water, causes them to slide down hill at a generally very slow, but powerful, pace. When they stop moving altogether or start to retreat, it is because they no longer have the mass or moisture to push them downhill. This has increasingly been the case with some of the largest glaciers across the planet.

Research will continue over the next few years as scientists will record a host of climate data in and around both the Lyell and Maclure Glaciers. They’ll monitor the thickness of the snowpack, range in temperatures and rate of ice melt in an effort to further understand the effects of climate change on the two bodies of ice. It seems clear, however, that warming temperatures have already begun to have an effect.

[Photo Credit: Greg Stock]

Leaked Documents Show Looming Budget Crisis For National Parks

National Parks like the Grand Cayon face major budget cutsLeaked documents from National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis give us a glimpse at the looming budget crisis that threatens to alter the operating landscape for America’s national parks. The documents paint a dire picture for the NPS and could have a major impact on the overall experience for visitors to the parks in 2013 and beyond.

In a letter from Jarvis dated January 25 of this year, regional, associate and assistant NPS directors are warned that unless Congress and President Obama can come to a fiscal agreement in the next few weeks, they will be asked to make 5% cuts to their budgets across the board. Having already missed a January 2 deadline for the sequestration of funds, the House and Senate have passed a law extending that deadline to March 1. Ahead of that date, the Park Service has already instituted a hiring freeze and has asked for recommendations from the management of each of its entities on where cuts should be made.

In addition to the immediate hiring freeze, the parks have been asked to continue planning for their seasonal hiring, but to not extend any offers until further notice. As the busy summer travel season nears, many of the parks hire temporary employees to help deal with the influx of visitors. For now, filling those positions has been put on the back burner. Furthermore, furloughed employees are to remain so for as long as possible, while overtime has been cut altogether. All non-essential travel has also been canceled and the purchasing of supplies has been cut as the organization strives to save cash.

A second leaked document shows the actual budgets of each of the parks and how much they are being asked to cut in order to make the 5% goal. Some of the hardest hit national parks include Yellowstone, which is being asked to cut $1.75 million, and Yosemite, which will lose $1.4 million in operating expenses. Those two locations aren’t the only ones feeling the pinch, however, as the National Mall will also shed $1.6 million from its budget and the Grand Canyon will cut an additional $1 million.Unless the budget sequestration is averted before March 1, these cuts could have a dramatic impact on the national park experience for travelers. Understaffed and under-budgeted parks could lead to reduced hours of operation, shorter overall seasons and even the potential closure of certain areas. Visitor services would also likely be hit hard with fewer rangers on duty and less staff in visitor centers and information kiosks.

These budget cuts could have a trickle-down effect on surrounding communities too. With reduced operating hours and shorter seasons, the amount of revenue generated in the public sector will drop, possibly taking jobs with it. Many of the small communities that sit close to a national park rely on tourism traffic to help keep the towns healthy and vibrant. When those resources go away, those places are likely to suffer as well.

For those of us who love the national parks, seeing these budget cuts is very disheartening. Hopefully a budget deal can be reached ahead of the March 1 deadline, but considering Washington’s track record in recent years, I have my doubts.

[Photo Credit: National Park Service]

Great Smoky Mountains National Park To Charge Fees For Camping

Great Smoky Mountains will charge new camping fee in FebruaryEarlier this week the National Park Service announced that it would begin implementing a reservation system and charging fees for the use of backcountry camping sites inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The move was announced last March, but it has taken until now for the system to be put into place. The NPS says the new fees will be used to improve customer service in trip planning, reservations and permits.

Starting February 13, the Park Service will begin charging $4/person for anyone looking to camp inside the park. On that same day, a new online reservation system will go into operation, allowing visitors to book a campsite up to 30 days in advance. Permits will also be available within the park itself at the Backcountry Office inside the Sugerlands Vistor Center. The NPS hopes these options will allow campers plenty of flexibility in their plans even if they are attempting to make a last minute booking.

Visitors to the park should see a direct impact from the fees that are collected as they’ll help fund additional staff in the Backcountry Office and put more rangers into the field. Those rangers will help ensure a safer and cleaner environment for hikers and backpackers, while enforcing regulations designed to make the park safer.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the entire U.S. system. On an annual basis it sees more than 9 million visitors pass through its gates. With over 522,000 acres of wilderness, it is also one of the largest protected areas in the eastern United States, which only adds to its popularity as a great travel destination.

[Photo Credit: National Park Service]