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The Whale Beneath Mt. Fairweather

August 5, 2014 in Education, Preservation

On June 25, 2014, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve hosted the grand opening of “Snow” – an exhibit paying tribute to a pregnant 45 ½-foot female humpback whale that was killed after being struck by a cruise ship. Funded in part by the National Park Foundation, the exhibit honors Snow’s story.
 

Many native Huna Tlingit families participated in the grand opening event and conducted a spirit ceremony that included giving Snow the Tlingit name, “Tsalxáan Tayée Yaay,” which translates as “Whale Beneath Mt. Fairweather.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

In life, Snow was one of nature’s treasures in the sea and she also helped us learn a lot about her species; the story of her death and return to Glacier Bay provides important lessons in natural resource management.

The exhibit itself is a work of art, magnificent for its sheer size and the graceful pose that suggests that the whale is in motion.

The exhibit is housed in an open-sided outdoor pavilion built by the National Park Service. Cleaning and preparing the bones took over 1,000 hours of work by park staff and volunteers, followed by the expert attentions of a professional whale articulation contractor. Dan DenDanto and his crew at Whales and Nails, LLC did the final cleaning and preparation of the bones, including repairing Snow’s damaged skull and fabricating replacements for missing bones. They did an artful job on every aspect of the work. There are 161 bones in all, which weigh over 3,700 pounds, not including the steel and other structural elements which now hold the skeleton together.

National Park Service photo of Snow’s fluke markings, by Janet Neilson, taken under the authority of scientific research permit #945-1499-00, issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service

In both life and death, Snow helped us to understand more about humpback whales. Snow’s recorded history in Glacier Bay began in 1975 when researcher Charles Jurasz first photographed her unique tail markings, and continued for many decades through sightings from Alaska and Hawaii. Jurasz was the first to observe that Alaska humpback whale tails are as unique as fingerprints.  Today, researchers around the world use individual identification photographs to track the life histories and migrations of individual whales, dolphins, and other animals.

Scientific observations of Snow’s behavior and biology (she was also known as whale #68 in the Southeast Alaska humpback whale catalog) are found in at least five scientific papers. One of her most important contributions was in resolving a long-standing controversy about the lifespan of humpback whales. Information on whale lifespans is essential for predicting population growth for this endangered species. Counts of growth-layers in her earplug revealed that Snow was born around 1957.

As for Snow’s unfortunate death, whale-vessel collisions are an issue of increasing concern in the world’s oceans. Although essentially free of cargo traffic, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is a very popular Alaska tourist destination. It is also a place with an increasing whale population, narrow passageways, and little leeway for mistakes. The vast majority of visitors see the park while aboard private or commercial vessels.  The park has some of the most stringent requirements in the world for minimizing the risk of whale-vessel collisions, including limits on the numbers of vessels, the speed they can travel, and the minimum distance they must keep from the whales. Snow’s death has been a driving force behind the park’s growing efforts to maintain a better line of communication with ship operators about whale collision avoidance measures.

Displaying this spectacular and beautiful skeleton is one way to turn Snow’s tragedy into an educational opportunity. We hope that this skeleton will inspire Glacier Bay visitors to learn more about whales and their challenges in the marine environment for decades to come.

Christine Gabriele is a wildlife biologist with the Humpback Whale Monitoring Program at Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in Alaska. You can read more about this project here.

Photo credit: National Park Service

NPS Program Helps Reimagine Urban Trails in Los Angeles

April 7, 2014 in Connecting People to Parks, Education

On March 10, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell caught a sneak peek of a new interactive mobile website being developed by a dynamic group of community partners who are reimagining urban trails in Los Angeles. Joined by a dozen students from nearby Franklin High School who worked on the project, Secretary Jewell utilized the mobile website to guide her on a 1-mile walking tour from the historic birthplace of Los Angeles at El Pueblo to the Los Angeles State Historic Park.

The walking tour began at Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area’s new outreach office located in the heart of El Pueblo, providing an opportunity for Secretary Jewell and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to see how the National Park Service is enhancing its commitment to serving the diverse communities of urban LA.

From there, directional arrows and mileage counters on the mobile website navigated the group to various “hotspots” where site-specific historic images and interpretive information about important cultural landmarks were displayed. In some spots, the website challenged participants to climb a flight of stairs nearby or use an open plaza to complete a series of yoga stretches, building additional physical activity with discrete health benefits into the user’s experience.

The urban trails project began in 2011 when staff from the National Park Service Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance program engaged a group of 60 students from Franklin High School’s transportation academy to develop ideas for connecting the community to local urban park spaces in Los Angeles. The students developed a concept for a network of urban trails that would link historic neighborhoods, cultural sites, and nearby natural resources to a centralized “community trailhead” located at the 32-acre Los Angeles State Historic Park (LASHP).

The students’ work inspired local partners from the City of Los Angeles’ Planning Department, California State Parks, the California Endowment, UCLA’s Interpretive Media Lab, and the National Park Service to explore how this trail network could be formalized. Ultimately, the California Endowment provided funding for the development of a pilot “LASHP Trails” mobile website to be released publicly in April 2014.

Unique from some other digital trail applications, the LASHP Trails mobile website has been designed as a tool of discovery, not just wayfinding. It requires you to be in a physical location to “unlock” content, emphasizing the importance of actually going out to experience and explore a place in person. This framework was critical to all partners involved, where the express intent had been to develop a model tool that utilizes the flexibility and interactivity of digital media to promote exploration and connection to local urban park spaces.

The urban trails project supports several National Park Service Call to Action priorities—from engaging youth, to promoting healthy recreation, to enhancing access to close-to-home outdoor spaces—all within the context of one of the largest and most dense urban settings in the country.

Women United! The Glue that was Mary McLeod Bethune

March 28, 2014 in Education

On February 26, 1955, at the Brotherhood Luncheon held in her honor, Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethune delivered the last speech she would ever give. In that speech, she poignantly stated, “I have been the dreamer, but oh how wonderfully you have interpreted my dreams.” The event, held at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., was meant to honor Mrs. Bethune, but she used it as an opportunity to honor the women that helped make her dreams a reality.

Mrs. Bethune knew her grand visions could not be accomplished alone. Realizing the value of friendship and building a diverse base of acquaintances, she surrounded herself with other like-minded women who were willing to sacrifice for the rights of all people. Working with dear friends like First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and joining with colleagues around the United States and the world, these women made change happen in their own time.

However, Mrs. Bethune knew it would take more than a lifetime to accomplish all of her goals.

Mrs. Bethune saw the future in the thousands of women of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), an organization which she founded in 1935 to further the rights of African American women. Relying on trusted confidants like Dr. Dorothy B. Ferebee and seeing promise and talent in women like Mrs. Vivian Carter Mason and Dr. Dorothy I. Height, Mrs. Bethune knew these women would carry the torch for decades to come.

And so they did.

Today, the NCNW continues the work Mrs. Bethune started almost 80 years ago, and the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site in Washington, D.C. shares and celebrates her incredible teachings and remarkable legacy.  Earlier this month, on March 8, 2014, the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site celebrated some of the extraordinary women who made Mrs. Bethune’s dreams a reality.

The program kicked off with an introduction by educator Melissa Green. She spoke of Mrs. Bethune’s “My Last Will and Testament,” and how Mrs. Bethune stated, “I leave you, finally, a responsibility to our young people.” Ms. Green expounded on how teachers, park rangers, and other educators are preparing young women to carry the torch “higher and higher and higher.” She showcased the Teacher-Ranger-Teacher program she helped develop with the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site to help students explore their nation’s heritage and treasures. Ms. Green also explained how educators are utilizing new technologies such as mobile apps and digital exhibits to connect young people to new places and ideas without ever having to leave the classroom.

Following Ms. Green’s introduction, Janice Ferebee, grand-niece of former NCNW President Dr. Ferebee, gave an engaging talk about how her great-aunt supported and continued Mrs. Bethune’s initiatives. As Mrs. Bethune’s closest confident, Dr. Ferebee was more than able to carry on her legacy. Ms. Ferebee explained how her aunt put Mrs. Bethune’s “Last Will and Testament” into real action and how she spent her entire life supporting women’s rights and civil rights, with a drive and endurance much like Mrs. Bethune.

It was more than a treat to learn about Dr. Ferebee from a close relative. By the end of Ms. Ferebee’s lecture, it was like the audience had known Dr. Ferebee all along.

The program closed with a living history performance by Kate Campbell Stevenson as Eleanor Roosevelt. Mrs. Bethune and Mrs. Roosevelt were lifelong friends who shared a passion for social justice. Mrs. Roosevelt was present when Mrs. Bethune purchased the Council House in 1943 and continued to support the NCNW long after Mrs. Bethune passed away.

Ms. Stevenson’s performance transported the audience back in time through song and theatrics, and made history truly come alive.

All of these women, along with Mrs. Bethune, swam against the current of their time to break through the cult of domesticity to become part of the history books. At every turn these women were told, “No you can’t,” which only emboldened their spirits to say, “YES WE CAN!”

It is more than an honor to celebrate these women of character, courage, and commitment this month and year-round.

Samantha Christine has been a park ranger with the National Park Service for nearly three years. She’s worked at various national parks in the D.C. area, including Glen Echo Park/Clara Barton National Historic Site, Arlington House, Robert E. Lee Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, and currently, the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site. She describes herself as a history nerd who will read anything by Doris Kearns Goodwin, an avid runner, and a bird watcher (she says D.C. is a migratory hub!). 

Achieving Critical Goals Through Partnerships

August 27, 2013 in Education

Through partnership and collaboration, there are unique and creative ways parks are able to secure vital funding for projects and initiatives that enhance the visitor experience. A great example is the Gardiner Gateway Project, a partnership effort to create a design that will improve the visitor experience through the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park located next to the gateway town of Gardiner, Montana. The Gardiner Gateway Project is a collaborative effort of 15 different organizations that will address traffic congestion, pedestrian safety, infrastructure improvements, and economic development.

Funding for the project was secured through a grant proposal which was submitted by the National Park Service (NPS) and Park County, Montana.  Approved by the Montana Program Decisions Committee, the Gardiner Gateway Project will receive $10.3 million from the Federal Lands Access Program, which helps fund state and local transportation repair and improvement projects.   With local matching funds from NPS and Park County, total project funding is nearly $12 million.  The National Park Foundation’s (NPF) resident Transportation Scholar, Katrina Hecimovic is spearheading Yellowstone’s participation in the project.

While the Gardiner Gateway Project addresses a specific park / gateway community need, similar challenges can be found at parks across the system.  To address this need, the National Park Foundation created the Transportation Scholar program. Now in its 12th year, the Transportation Scholar program selects emerging transportation professionals to work side-by-side with National Park Service staff to research sustainable, alternative solutions to address the growing and unique transportation issues in America’s national parks, including traffic, pollution, congestion, and engaging gateway communities. A total of 57 scholars working at 46 NPS units have provided lasting, positive impact to parks and visitors alike.

Scholars bring professional expertise, new ideas and energy, and propel parks forward in planning for alternative transportation systems. Previous scholars’ work has resulted in more than fourteen million dollars in private and public funding to put the Transportation Scholars’ plans into action. Past scholars have gone on to careers with the National Park Service, the Federal Highway Administration, the Department of Transportation and many private consulting agencies.

The Transportation Scholars program model has proven so successful that the Transit in Parks Technical Assistance Center (TRIPTAC) launched a complementary program last year, expanding the program to all public lands.  This new extension, the TRIPTAC Public Lands Transportation Scholars Program, is based on the NPF program model and matches Transportation Scholars with one of three other federal land management agencies. The two programs work together to train and mentor scholars with the shared goal of preserving our nation’s valuable natural, cultural, and historic resources and enhancing the visitor experience by implementing sustainable, alternative transportation in national parks and public lands.

How does your park or organization partner to achieve critical goals?

 

Making the Case for Place-based Learning

January 24, 2013 in Education

Young children learning about trees on a ranger walkImagine if 1 in 4 students had the opportunity to learn science, history or civics in some of the best classrooms in our country—the Everglades, Gettysburg or Olympic National Park. What if in addition to lectures and textbooks, students got to study the ecology of wetlands or literally walk the grounds of one of the most defining battles of the Civil War?

That’s the vision–reinforced in the NPS Call to Action “Live & Learn” recommendation–that many of us came to discuss on a recent call hosted by the National Parks Conservation Association in October. We’re all in agreement that it’s time for the national park education community to come together in a serious way and make this goal a reality. The challenge is how.

Collectively, we have plenty of smart ideas that we’re ready to put into action. Some are more doable and achievable—like sharing best practices around the adoption of educational technology for field learning. Others will take time and resources—like identifying strategic opportunities to connect directly with school districts to combine resources.

But one of the biggest challenges we face is making the case for place-based learning to the broader education community. I was reminded of this when I attended an event last week hosted by the Ford Foundation and the National Center on Time & Learning. The purpose of the event was to announce the TIME Collaborative, an initiative to create what’s called “expanded learning time” in five states. The idea is to lengthen and redesign the school day, which is correlated with impressive gains in student achievement. I heard phrases like “more and better learning” and “closing the achievement gap by closing the opportunity gap.”

While the practical focus is on in-school learning, there was recognition from the podium—speakers like Education Secretary Arne Duncan or Colorado Governor Hickenlooper—that the education community needs to bring in community resources, partners, and specialized providers. That’s us! Education reform must include the deeper educational opportunities that exist beyond the classroom as part of the solution to the engagement, retention, and achievement challenges facing our nation’s schools.

When you consider a NatureBridge program in the context of “more and better learning“—say, a student spends a week in Yosemite —I am confident they receive a healthy dose of “more”, with learning happening from breakfast to bedtime.  And for many students it is not just “better,” it is long remembered as “the best” experience – an anchor experience from their school years. And we have the results to prove it, too. So, why aren’t we, as a community, collaborating to create more of these experiences for students?

We must come together. The Centennial of the National Park Service is a great milestone to focus our efforts and the success of our nation’s schoolchildren is the greatest reason of all to act. We will be talking with our organization and our funders about how to make this happen. We invite you to do the same.

Vanessa Morel is the Washington DC Director for NatureBridge – a non-profit organization providing residential field science education in national parks for 30,000 students each year.

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Is Technology Sending Mixed Messages?

September 7, 2012 in Education

In 2010, an estimated 281,303,769 visitors experienced our national parks. Although that number is staggering, what about those people who didn’t visit a national park because of lack of access or ability? How can they learn about the hardwood forests in Shenandoah National Park or the journey of the Corps of Discovery at a site along the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail? And how can students in Florida learn about the Hagerman Horse fossils at Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument in Idaho?

The Advancing the Education Mission theme of A Call to Action includes actions to bring national parks to people in their homes and their schools. For example, this year park partners, Yosemite and Sequoia and Kings Canyon staff, attended a two day social media workshop held in Yosemite National Park to learn how to best use social media to communicate interpretive and informational content to visitors, stakeholders, and each other using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr. The result? Yosemite has organized a social media team who is developing a strategy to use these tools to effectively leverage social media tools and to prepare to support new media.

While non-traditional, these formal and informal learning methods are nonetheless advancing the education mission of the NPS into the next century. However, because most these mediums are accessed from work or home, are they actually sending mixed messages? On some level, is the use of these technologies saying to the public that actually being in nature is not so important? Join the conservation in the Message Board forums.