Saturday, September 27, 2014

Smokies Closes Area Near Caves to Protect Declining Bat Populations

Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials announced the closure of the Whiteoak Sink area effective now through March 31 to limit human disturbance to bat hibernacula and help hikers avoid interactions with bats. Park biologists will be monitoring the site throughout the winter collecting population, ecological and behavioral data that will inform resource managers developing a long-term protection plan. An extended closure through late spring may be recommended if the winter data suggests such an action would increase the chances for survival of a significant number of bats.

The Whiteoak Sink area is primarily accessed from the Schoolhouse Gap Trail between Townsend and Cades Cove. This closure includes the area bounded by Schoolhouse Gap Trail and Turkeypen Ridge Trail west to the park boundary. The Schoolhouse Gap and Turkeypen Ridge trails will remain open.

Park biologists have reported dramatic declines of cave-dwelling bat populations throughout the park. The decline is thought to be due to white-nose syndrome (WNS). Infected bats are marked by a white fungal growth on their noses, wings, and tail membrane. The skin irritation damages skin tissue causing the bats to wake from hibernation during winter months. Once aroused, the bats burn energy at a much faster rate depleting stored fat. With no food source available during the winter, the bats soon die.

Infected bats exhibit unusual behavior including flying erratically during the day, even during winter months, and diving down toward people. They may be seen flopping around on the ground around cave openings.

"We first confirmed the presence of WNS in the park in 2010," said Park Wildlife Biologist Bill Stiver. "The impact has been devastating. We estimate that some of our cave-dwelling bat populations have already declined by 80% and we are doing everything we can to both slow the spread of the disease and protect the remaining animals by closing caves and areas near caves to the public."

The park is home to 11 species of bats including the federally endangered Indiana bat and the Rafinesque's big-eared bat which is a state listed species of concern in both Tennessee and North Carolina. Bats play a significant role in maintaining ecological balance as the primary predators of night-flying insects. Biologists estimate that an individual bat can eat between 3,000 to 6,000 insects each night including moths, beetles, and mosquitoes.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is cooperatively working with other parks and federal, local and state agencies across the country to protect bats and manage cave habitats. In an effort to prevent the unintentional spread of WNS by people, the park closed all of its 16 caves and two mine complexes to public entry in 2009. Ongoing research in the Smokies includes monitoring bat populations in the winter during hibernation and tracking bats in the summer to determine habitat use. A recent plan released by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service aimed at stabilizing the dramatic decline of the Indiana bat identified hibernacula found in the Sinks as one of only 13 sites across the country identified as critical habitat for this endangered bat. Wildlife biologists have determined that giving the bats the chance to survive includes establishing protective zones surrounding critical habitat caves.

Humans are not susceptible to WNS because the fungus requires a cold body temperature to survive, but skin-to-skin contact with bats should be avoided due to other transmittable diseases such as rabies. Bats are the only mammal species in the park that have tested positive for rabies. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the transmission of rabies virus can occur from minor, seemingly unimportant, or unrecognized bites from bats. For human safety, it is important not to touch or handle a bat. The Department of Health and Human Services recommends that individuals should seek immediate medical attention if they have had skin-to-skin exposure to a bat.

For more information about bats, please the park website.



Jeff
Hiking in the Smokies

Friday, September 26, 2014

USFS Backs-Off Threat of Photo Fees

As a follow-up to a posting from earlier today, I just found out that the U.S. Forest Service is backing away from a threat to impose fees on photographers who take photos on national forest lands. In a press release issued late last night, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell stated: “The US Forest Service remains committed to the First Amendment. To be clear, provisions in the draft directive do not apply to news gathering or activities.

He also goes on to state: "The fact is, the directive pertains to commercial photography and filming only – if you’re there to gather news or take recreational photographs, no permit would be required. We take your First Amendment rights very seriously. We’re looking forward to talking with journalists and concerned citizens to help allay some of the concerns we’ve been hearing and clarify what’s covered by this proposed directive.”

The statements are the result of an apparent firestorm from a recently proposed, but vaguely-worded rule, that some have interpreted to mean that the USFS would be imposing fees on professional media, as well as amateur photographers, for taking photos on national forest lands. This had some First Amendment advocates alarmed.

The USFS press release further clarifies the intent of the rule with this statement:
The proposal does not change the rules for visitors or recreational photographers. Generally, professional and amateur photographers will not need a permit unless they use models, actors or props; work in areas where the public is generally not allowed; or cause additional administrative costs.
However, neither Tidwell or the press release makes clear how, or if bloggers would be impacted in anyway. Although I do think bloggers would ultimately be part of the exemption, it's not entirely certain to me.

To read the full press release, please click here.



Jeff
Hiking in the Smokies

Smokies to Host Star Gazing Event at Cades Cove Tomorrow

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, in cooperation with the Smoky Mountains Astronomical Society, will offer a 2 ½-hour stargazing program in Cades Cove on Saturday, September 27 beginning at 7:30 p.m. Experienced astronomers and numerous telescopes will be on hand to provide a discovery of the autumn sky’s position of stars, galaxies, and constellations, including the Milky Way. In case of rain or cloud cover where night skies are not visible, the program will be canceled.

“It’s a great opportunity to gaze at the star-studded sky without the obstruction of artificial light as seen in developed areas outside the park,” said Park Ranger Mike Maslona. “People will be amazed at the vast depths of this planetary world and all that they can see in the complete darkness. This program mixes astronomy, legends, and the beauty of the stars to create a worthwhile exploration into the wonders of the heavens.”

Participants for the program should park near the exhibit shelter at the entrance to the Cades Cove Loop Road. A park ranger will walk with the group one-third of a mile to a nearby field to the viewing location. No vehicles are allowed to drive to the site.

Those planning to attend should dress warm and bring a flashlight. Participants might also like to bring a lawn chair or blanket for sitting, along with binoculars which can be used for stargazing. Carpooling is strongly encouraged.

The program is subject to postponement due to rain or cloud cover. Call the day of the event to confirm that the program will take place at 865-448-4104.



Jeff
Hiking in the Smokies

U.S. Forest Service Wants $1500 to Take a Photo

Imagine walking into the Cherokee National Forest and snapping a few photos of your favorite mountain, wildflower or bear. Then suppose, since your photos turned out to be pretty awesome, that you decide to post them on your blog. Or, perhaps you're an amateur photographer and you thought that maybe you could make a few bucks by selling a print of one of those photos at a local art fair. Now, imagine getting slapped with a $1000 fine from the U.S. Forest Service for failing to obtain a permit to take that photo! Getting that permit isn't exactly walk in the park, either. The U.S. Forest Service wants a $1500 fee to purchase that permit in the first place!

If the USFS gets its way, those scenarios could become fact.

Back in early September the agency in charge with overseeing our national forests proposed a new rule that has First Amendment advocates alarmed. In addition to the impact this would have on bloggers and amateur photographers, many are concerned that the vaguely-worded rule could apply to professional media as well. Gregg Leslie, legal defense director at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, recently told Oregon Live that, “It’s pretty clearly unconstitutional. They would have to show an important need to justify these limits, and they just can’t.”

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden from Oregon weighed in with this statement: "The Forest Service needs to rethink any policy that subjects noncommercial photographs and recordings to a burdensome permitting process for something as simple as taking a picture with a cell phone. Especially where reporters and bloggers are concerned, this policy raises troubling questions about inappropriate government limits on activity clearly protected by the First Amendment."

Here's a summery of the rule as published on the Federal Register:
The Forest Service proposes to incorporate interim directive (ID) 2709.11-2013.1 into Forest Service Handbook (FSH) 2709.11, chapter 40 to make permanent guidance for the evaluation of proposals for still photography and commercial filming on National Forest System Lands. The proposed amendment would address the establishment of consistent national criteria to evaluate requests for special use permits on National Forest System (NFS) lands. Specifically, this policy provides the criteria used to evaluate request for special use permits related to still photography and commercial filming in congressionally designated wilderness areas. Public comment is invited and will be considered in the development of the final directive.
So what if this rule (and thinking) makes its way over to the National Park Service? More importantly, who owns our "public lands" anyway?

For more information, or more importantly, to voice your opinion, please visit the Federal Register website. The USFS will be accepting comments through November 3, 2014.



Jeff
Hiking in the Smokies

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Appalachian National Scenic Trail Announces Implementation of Unmanned Aircraft Use Policy

The National Park Service has developed an interim policy prohibiting the use of unmanned aircraft on NPS managed lands of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. This is a new park use that could affect park resources, staff, and visitors in ways that the National Park Service has yet to identify, analyze and examine. It's the National Park Service policy to not allow a new park use until a determination has been made that it will not result in unacceptable impacts on park resources and values, plus staff and visitor safety.

The closure prohibits the launching, landing, or operating an unmanned aircraft from or on lands and waters administered by the National Park Service within the boundaries of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.

The term “unmanned aircraft” means a device that is used or intended to be used for flight in the air without the possibility of direct human intervention from within or on the device, and the associated operational elements and components that are required for the pilot or system operator in command to operate or control the device (such as cameras, sensors, communication links). This term includes all types of devices that meet this definition (e.g., model airplanes, quadcopters, drones) that are used for any purpose, including for recreation or commerce.”

This interim policy went into effect last month, and will remain in place until the National Park Service can determine the most appropriate policy that will protect park resources and provide all visitors with a rich experience.


Jeff
Hiking in the Smokies

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Celebrate National Public Lands Day in the Smokies

Great Smoky Mountains National Park invites the public to join park staff in Cades Cove on Saturday, September 27, 2014, for the 21st annual celebration of National Public Lands Day. Volunteers are needed for this year's event to collect seeds from native plant increase fields in Cades Cove.

The increase fields are used to produce seeds from wild native grasses and forbs, which are used to help restore native populations to the Cades Cove meadows. Native plants in the meadows provide vital habitat to small mammals, ground-nesting birds, insects and other small animals.

Those interested in volunteering with this event should contact Acting Volunteer Coordinator Jamie Sanders at (865) 436-1265. Reservations are required.

National Public Lands Day is our nation's largest single day of service for public lands. Over 2,000 city, state, and federal sites provide opportunities to support public lands annually. For more information on National Public Lands visit publiclandsday.org.



Jeff
Hiking in the Smokies

Within the Shadows of Cumberland Gap Heritage Walk

Where can you meet intrepid pioneer Rebecca Boone, the murderous Harpe brothers, and famed conservationist Gifford Pinchot, and still stay right in beautiful Cumberland Gap? During the annual Heritage Walk of course!

For the fourth year in a row, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park is presenting "Within the Shadows of Cumberland Gap Heritage Walk."Once again, the park will be shedding light on some of the lesser-known stories and people from the area's past. Unlike previous years, however, the event will be held over a period of several hours during the day, and visitors can wander along the old Wilderness Road trail at their leisure versus being in guided groups.

"This has been such a popular event in the past, we decided to open it up to everyone throughout the day," explains Park Ranger Sharon Griffin. From 10 a.m.until noon, and then again from 2 p.m. until 4 p.m. on Saturday, September 27th, visitors can park at the Thomas Walker parking area at the junction of Pinnacle and Sugar Run Roads on the Kentucky side of the park and wander the old trail through the beautiful Cumberland Gap, meeting people from history along the way. At the end of the 1.5 mile trail at the Daniel Boone parking area in Virginia, visitors can board shuttles to return them to their vehicles.

"Remember to wear good walking shoes and bring water," advises Ranger Griffin. "And bring your camera, as you never know who you will meet!"

This program is being co-hosted by the Friends of Cumberland Gap National Historical Park and Eastern National. For more information about Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, please call (606) 248-2817 or visit www.nps.gov/cuga.



Jeff
Hiking in the Smokies