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The Year in National Parks

From people stealing baby bison and Yosemite trademarks to epic blooms in Death Valley, 2016 has been an eventful centennial year for the NPS

Yosemite National Park (Manish Mamtani, Smithsonian.com Photo Contest Archives)
smithsonian.com

The past year was full of news and stories from our National Park System. Here’s are some of the biggest stories about “America’s Best Idea.”

1. New Monuments for 2016

The last year of the Obama administration was a big one for the National Park System and federal land conservation in general. In February, the president declared three new national monuments in Southern California, including the 1.6 million-acre Mojave Trails, the 154,000-acre Sand to Snow and 20,920-acre Castle Mountains National Monuments. The new parks fill in gaps between Joshua Tree National Park and Mojave National Preserve, protecting fossil beds, petroglyphs and a rare desert plant species.

In August, the administration announced the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, an 87,500-acre swath of North Woods along Maine’s Penobscot River. With its status as a national monument secured, many conservationists now hope to eventually upgrade the area to full National Park Status.

And just days ago, the administration declared two more national monuments, Gold Butte in Nevada and Bears Ears in Utah, though those two areas will be administered by the Bureau of Land Management. The administration also declared the first national monument in the Atlantic Ocean, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument in September, and in August it expanded the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument near Hawaii into the world’s largest marine conservation area. (Soon after, scientists named a new species of fish native to the monument after Obama).

2. Parks for Everyone

In recent years, new national monuments and parks have been created to celebrate the history of all sorts of Americans: the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument celebrates black cavalry soldiers, the Cesar Chavez National Monument celebrates the legacy of the Latino labor leader, The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic Park celebrates the abolitionist icon and the Pullman National Monument tells the story of the labor conflict that led to Labor Day. In the last year, two new sites were added to that list. In April, the NPS added the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument to its rolls. The large home in Washington, D.C., is the former headquarters of the National Women’s Party, led by Alice Paul. That organization, and others, worked through the early 20th century to secure women the right to vote.

The Stonewall National Monument includes the site of the former Stonewall Inn in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. The building and an eight-acre park will tells the story of the American LGBTQ community's struggle for civil rights and acceptance throughout American history.

3. Animals In the News

One of the reasons many people visit National Parks is to get a glimpse of critters. This year has been mixed bag for animals in the parks. In May, Scarface, Yellowstone’s most famous grizzly bear, was shot and killed by an unknown poacher. Yellowstone also took a hit in August when tens of thousands of whitefish and trout in the Yellowstone River went belly up, victims of a fish parasite called Tetracapsuloides bryosalmonae. But there were a few bright spots for animals in the parks. After inbreeding reduced the number of wolves on isolated Isle Royale to just two animals, the NPS recently announced it will introduce more wolves to the island in Lake Superior in the next three years. And foxes on Channel Islands National Park made history after a huge, multi-agency effort helped them mount the fastest recovery of any endangered mammal in history.

4. Jurassic Parks

Furry modern day mammals may get all the love in National Parks, but there is another animal that parks protect: dinosaurs. Over the summer, paleontologists in Alaska’s Denali National Park were excited to find the first dinosaur remains discovered in the area. Researchers previously thought acidic soil conditions prevented fossils from forming in the park, but the new find means the remote area could be the next big destination for dino-hunters. Paleontologists and archaeologists already knew that the West Bijou site and its band of sedimentary rock marking the time when the dinosaurs came to an end was important. That’s why in November the 7,600-acre area was declared a national natural landmark and will be administered by the Park Service.

And at Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park, researchers are making discoveries about dinosaurs that are completely upending what we know about the Jurassic era.

5. A New Climate

One of the biggest trends in National Parks news this year was how the impacts of climate change are slowly changing our favorite spots. For instance, a study from August suggests that Joshua trees, Yucca brevifolia, the namesake of Joshua Tree National Park will lose 90 percent of their habitat in the next century. In fact, it’s not just the unique Joshua tree. According to another story, the cute, high-altitude pika is imperiled by temperature changes at National Parks, which has led the NPS to completely rethink its conservation strategies for many plants and animals as it faces shifting habitats over the next century.

According to another story from this year, fighting climate change would not only help plants and animals in the parks, it would also help the view. Air pollution is impacting some iconic views in National Parks, and it will take until 2064 for even a small fraction of parks to return to their pre-pollutions vistas.

6. Visitors Behaving Badly

A perennial problem in National Parks is, well, the visitors. This year was no different. Not only were poachers ripping up Smoky Mountains National Park looking for ginseng to send to China, one father and son put a baby bison in the back of their SUV in Yellowstone National Park, trying to “save” it. Sadly, the little guy had to be put down. It wasn’t the only tragedy in Yellowstone: in June a man slipped into a hotspring after leaving the boardwalk. He was not recovered and his body dissolved in the acidic water.

But at least in one park there is a way to make up for past misdeeds. At Petrified Forest, rangers place chunks of glittering quartz returned by guilt-ridden guests in an area dubbed the “Conscience Pile.”

7. Controversies

Last March, Yosemite National Park began renaming some iconic landmarks within the park. That’s because, over a 25-year-period the company operating the hotels and concessions within the park slyly secured the trademarked names for places like Badger Pass and Wawona Hotels and even some uses of the term “Yosemite National Park.” After the company lost its contract with the park, it revealed it had taken control of the trademarks.

An even larger controversy erupted in May when the NPS announced proposed revisions to its philanthropic partnerships. The new rules would allow the corporate logos of some donors to appear on banners, vehicles, signs and other materials within parks. While some proponents felt it was a minor concession to reward donors, other groups felt it was a slippery slope to privatization of the parks.  

8. Super Spectacular

Not everything in 2016 was about how people are ruining the parks. There were also plenty of moments celebrating why we love our natural areas. For instance, a rare super-bloom in Death Valley showed just why the desert deserves protection. A massive flare up of fireflies in the Smoky Mountains was equally enthralling. The Grand Canyon formalized its status as one of the best spots on earth for stargazers by officially becoming a Dark Sky Park. Then there are the annual spectacles, like the ponies swimming at Chincoteague or watching Elk at Rocky Mountain National Park or spoonbills flying over the Everglades that reward visitors year after year.

9. iParks

Like with everything else, technology is transforming the National Parks. One of the most innovative uses? Virtual reality, which allows people to visit parks they may never reach IRL. Teaming up with Google, the NPS released immersive 360-degree videos of Carlsbad Caverns, the Dry Tortugas and other parks in August. Other recent innovations include bearcams, Google Streetviews of the parks, cell phone tours and podcasts produced by the parks.

10. Take a Gander

For over a century, the next best thing to hiking through a National Park is taking a good look at them through photographs. In celebration of the NPS centenial, there was plenty of iconic photography on display this year, including a gallery of some iconic nature photography, an exhibition of Ansel Adams photos and a celebration of Carleton Watkins, the photographer who first brought Yosemite to the general public.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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