What were the top stories across the National Park System in 2008? That's a good question, but unfortunately one that brings to mind many stories we at the Traveler wish never arose.
Here's our shortlist, in relative descending order of importance.
* End of an Error. It took eight long years, but the Bush administration's turn at running the country has finally run out. Now the hard work of picking up the pieces begins. And there are a lot of pieces strewn across the public lands landscape. For nearly a decade the National Park Service has suffered from inadequate funding as well as a muffling of science under this administration, despite pledges to the contrary, and a bent towards ideology, not stewardship.
* Interior Secretary Nominee Ken Salazar. Not exactly a polarizing pick, but not one enthusiastically endorsed across the board, the selection by the incoming Obama administration of U.S. Senator Ken Salazar for Interior secretary will be closely scrutinized in the months and years ahead as he's looked upon to right the Interior Department and its public lands empire after eight years of Bush administration policies and tactics.
* Guns in the parks. Lock and load, folks, lock and load.
* Yellowstone's snowmobile saga. Will this story ever go away? Probably not as long as there are politicians and National Park Service managers who bend to their will. Was there just a tinge of irony when the winter season arrived December 15 without enough snow for snowmobiles?
The Curious Traveler: Is it only the Traveler, or does anyone else find it odd that Intermountain Region Director Mike Snyder won't allow howitzers to be used to keep rail traffic safe from avalanches along the southern border of Glacier National Park, yet has no qualms about rangers lobbing shells into the heart of Yellowstone to protect snowmobilers?
In searching for an answer to this, I called the Intermountain Region office and was told that while the two decisions certainly appear contradictory, they are not, largely because the Yellowstone decision was grounded, in part, on the fact that howitzer use for avalanche control along Sylvan Pass had a historical context in the park and there was no historical use of howitzers for the same at Glacier. That explanation left me wondering why the Organic Act's mandate that the NPS conserve resources "unimpaired" didn't create a historical basis for trumping that use of howitzers in Yellowstone?
* Drilling Threat to NPS Units in Utah. Talk about power plays between two land-management agencies! This story, tied around Arches and Canyonlands national parks and Dinosaur National Monument, was riveting for the media, as the story changed on a regular, and rapid, basis. While the story is a good example of why national park advocates are needed, it also spurs thorny issues, such as should there be a buffer zone around national parks? If so, doesn't that in effect enlarge a park's boundaries? And if a buffer is created, do we then need a buffer zone for the buffer?
* Death of a Land Bill. When the Omnibus Land Management Act of 2008 died earlier this month, it took with it many valuable legislative tidbits that would have benefited the National Park System in many ways. For instance, the measure would have designated official wilderness in Rocky Mountain National Park and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore; expanded the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System; expanded the National Trails System; would have allowed members of the military -- active or veteran -- to purchase the National Parks and Federal Recreation Lands Pass (aka, the America the Beautiful Pass) for just $10; established the Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park (which perhaps didn't deserve such a designation, anyway) in New Jersey; created the Thomas Edison National Historical Park, also in New Jersey; provided funding for the Keweenaw National Historical Park; revised boundaries of a number of NPS units; and then some.
* The Centennial Challenge. Does anyone remember where this stands? Seems the Congress had only lukewarm interest in it. Will Team Obama be able to revive the dream?
* Valley Forge and Museums. This story was significant both for the perceived threat the American Revolution Center complex poses to Valley Forge National Historical Park as well as to the lack of NPS attention in Washington, D.C. Park officials fought this battle best they could, but the reinforcements from Washington never arrived.
* Cape Hatteras Gone to the Birds (and turtles). Despite lawsuits, threats of lawsuits, attempts to legislate NPS management, and efforts to compromise, the debate over what's best for birds, turtles, and surf anglers at Cape Hatteras National Seashore remained contentious to the very end of '08!
* U.S. Sugar and the Everglades. This could prove to be one of the larger developments of 2008, but we really won't know how this land deal will play out until 2009 is almost spent. Will it improve water flows through the Everglades and Everglades National Park, or will it prove to be a boondoggle? Check back with the Traveler a year from now.
* Fishers Invade the Peninsula! Thank goodness the wildlife folks in Washington state came together on the need to import fishers from British Columbia to help the furry critters return to Olympic National Park.
* Really, we weren't lost! One of two other feel-good stories of the year involved two young ladies who took a wrong turn in the backcountry of Denali National Park and Preserve, ended up outside the park, and still managed to come home safe and sound. The other involved a couple from Salt Lake City that got lost in the Grand Canyon and also lived to tell about their ordeal.
That said, what stories involving the national parks stood out to you in 2008?