National Park News

Mississippi: Sun and Adventure on Wst Ship Island

Health Threat Closes Volcano National Park

District of Columbia Seeks to Spread Out Cherry Blossom Crowds

Stubborn Homeowners live by Oozing Volcano

Lava Watchers Drawn to Kilauea

Mississippi: Sun and Adventure on West Ship Island

GULF ISLANDS NATIONAL SEASHORE, Mississippi (AP) -- It's like something out of a movie: A boat filled with tourists -- drinking and happy, delighted with the exploits of the passing dolphins -- washes up to a rugged island whose exotic name conjures the mystique surrounding this place.

West Ship Island is part of Gulf Islands National Seashore.

This is West Ship Island, the most touristy of the barrier islands in this part of the Gulf.

For those seeking an upscale getaway, this isn't it. There's a fishing pier and white sand beach, but the island, with its rugged, brown-washed interior, beckons a hardier traveler, one who doesn't mind using the bathroom in a travel trailer. Who can see past the debris that's washed ashore with the shells to take in the austere beauty and watch out for birds and other wildlife. Who digs history with his rays and wants to see, firsthand, the erosion of an island that acts as a first line of defense from hurricanes for the mainland.

"The island has changed nonstop, every day," says Frank Bordeaux, a crew member for Ship Island Excursions, the National Park Service concessionaire that takes the mainly regional visitors the roughly 12 miles out from Gulfport. "It's exciting, because you get to point that out to people."

One of the constants, at least of the past 142 years, has been Fort Massachusetts, the brick relic raised in response to fears the island would be used by U.S. enemies. The fort, part of a coastal defense system, went up after the British amassed on what was then known as Ship Island before the Battle of New Orleans. The only action it saw came during the Civil War, when Southerners who'd claimed the site exchanged longshot cannon fire with offshore Union troops.

A portion of the island served for a time as a POW camp for captured Confederates, political dissidents and Union soldiers who had not obeyed orders.

Ship Island Excursions: While West Ship Island is accessible to private boaters, this National Park Service concessionaire is the most popular way to visit the island. Boats leave Gulfport, Mississippi, Wednesday through Sunday through May 16, and daily after that through August 17. The Wednesday through Sunday schedule resumes through October 26. For more information, or 866-466-7386. Tickets $22 round-trip; children, 3-10, $12; seniors, $20.

A map of the area, from the years immediately following the Civil War, shows a smattering of buildings and an ample buffer of land around the fort. Today, the buildings are long gone, and water laps up against the still-intact, roughly 30-foot high fort.

West Ship Island is part of Gulf Islands National Seashore, which is managed by the National Park Service and in Mississippi and Florida. Faye Walmsley, the park's Mississippi district interpreter, says her agency is working with the Army Corps of Engineers to try to develop a plan to shore up the beach in hopes of better preserving the fort. The park service said salty air and slapping waves have begun eroding the mortar though the elements haven't "significantly" undermined the fort so far.

"We know that's a concern, and we're working on that issue," she said.

Storms and erosion are a fact of life on the island; in 1969, Hurricane Camille split the island in two -- East and West.

But Hurricane Katrina, which devastated parts of the Gulf Coast in August 2005, took an immense toll on West Ship Island, swamping the island in a storm surge of approximately 35 feet and washing away virtually every structure -- bathrooms, exhibits, a replica lighthouse.

As much as 18 percent of the island, mostly its tips, was lost in Katrina, ranger Don Holifield said. It's now about 3 miles long, he said, and the gulf between it and the more wild East Ship Island -- seen as a line of dead tree stands from West -- has widened to more than one mile.

"You came to a ghost town today, didn't you?" Holifield tells about a dozen people gathered one recent Sunday for a free interpretive program.

There is a days-gone-by eeriness, particularly as one wanders farther from the main, umbrella-dotted beach, just off the boardwalk that passes the restrooms, outdoor showers, the picnic stand and the snack trailer.

The landscape calls to mind a mix of prairie and swamp -- a ranger says an alligator or two may be hanging around the interior marshes -- and the open air staves off the fish-farm smell that hangs heavy over some inland beaches. Sunbathers each have their own patch of sand; hikers gain solitude along the sandy rim, where black sand often mingles with white; and families frolic in the waves as gulls glide on the wind.

One father and son, Billy Parrish and Graham, 10, of Mandeville, Louisiana, beachcomb, proudly showing off their finds, before running off to make "snow angels."

The accommodations were a bit less accommodating last year; there were backcountry-style "composting" toilets, not flush-toilets, for example. The park service is redesigning its exhibits and hopes to start work on permanent buildings later this year, to replace those destroyed by Katrina, Walmsley said.

Before the storm, West Ship Island averaged about 64,000 visitors via Ship Island Excursions, the most popular way to get there, she said. Since the storm, visitation, which fell off sharply, has rebounded, reaching about 32,000 passengers on the concessionaire's boats last year.

"It's encouraging that people are returning," said Louis Skrmetta, whose family runs the boat service and caps the number of people it takes out to the island to help preserve the more natural, quiet ambiance.

"What you have here is a true National Park experience, for someone not interested in commercialization," he said, adding: "It's something you never forget."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.

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Health Threat Closes Volcano National Park

2,200 Big Island Residents Affected By Increase In Sulfur Dioxide

POSTED: 7:49 am HST April 8, 2008
UPDATED: 12:58 pm HST April 8, 2008

HONOLULU -- Officials closed Volcano National Park late on Tuesday morning because winds are blowing sulfur dioxide from an eruption of ash and gas from Kilauea Volcano. Officials closed the park from Kilauea Military Camp to Chain of Craters Road. They closed Chain of Craters Road, Jaggar Museum and the hotel at Volcano. Earlier in the day, county and state officials have issued an evacuation advisory for about 2,200 Big Island residents in the Kilauea volcano area because of toxic gas.

An increase in sulfur dioxide emissions from the volcano's Halema`uma`u Crater has created hazardous conditions downwind. Winds, expected to shift and start coming out of the southeast could blow dangerous levels of sulfur dioxide into the region, officials said Tuesday morning. The affected areas are Mauna Loa Estates, Ohia Estates, Volcano Village, the Keauhou Ranch area and the Volcano Golf Course subdivision. A shelter has been set up at Aunty Sally's Luau Hale near the Edith Kanakaole tennis stadium.

Items, Precautions Officials Suggest: Bedding (blankets, sleeping bags, etc.)
Change of clothing
Special medications and needed medical equipment
Infant necessities (formula, diapers, baby food, etc.)
Personal toilet articles and sanitary needs
Be sure to provide for your pets as the shelter can not accomodate animals.

Sulfur dioxide can be especially harmful to those with asthma or other respiratory problems.

Safety Precautions: Limit exposure
Close all windows to your home, cars and businesses
Listen to your body signs and leave if necessary
Enclosed rooms with air conditioning are the greatest protection

Kilauea Volcano has been belching ash and gas for a couple of weeks. The rare eruption involves something deep inside Kilauea, officials said, and includes lava being ejected from the vent by powerful gas and water pressure. Some ash has been falling in Pahala, one of several towns in the area, for weeks. Officials warned people to stock up on emergency items such as dust masks.

A couple days before the ash and gas eruption, an explosion on the crater's rim blew debris over a 75-acre area. The explosion left a carved out a small crater in the rim.

Copyright 2008 by

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District of Columbia Seeks to Spread Out Cherry Blossom Crowds

WASHINGTON (AP) -- For Jake Kwon, spring doesn't begin until the city's famous cherry trees have bloomed, wrapping the Tidal Basin in a stunning canopy of pink and white petals.

Washington's 16-day National Cherry Blossom Festival runs through April 13.

Kwon thought about staying far away from the blossoms this year, though. He's grown weary of fighting traffic, traipsing through muddy grounds trampled by tourists, and trying to snap that perfect photograph with throngs of people getting in the way. "It seems like no matter where you go, you're going to run into crowds," said Kwon, a consultant from McLean, Virginia.

More than a million enthusiasts are expected for Washington's 16-day National Cherry Blossom Festival, which runs through April 13. But those like Kwon, seeking a more tranquil setting to appreciate the delicate blossoms, shouldn't fret. Visitors can avoid some of the crowds with early morning jogs, lantern-lit tours at night and boat rides on the Potomac River.

The festival has become Washington's signature tourist event since it began in 1935. Executive director Diana Mayhew said to better handle the crowds, there's now interest in spreading out the time people visit the blossoms and encouraging them to explore beyond the Tidal Basin.

For the first time, the National Park Service is offering early morning "cherry chit-chat" runs. Before the busloads of tourists arrive, park ranger Rebbecca Steketee will take runners on a 3.5-mile jog that starts at the Washington Monument and continues to the Jefferson Memorial before winding around the Tidal Basin.

Along the way, Steketee will share little-known facts about the blossoms. The first trees from Japan, for instance, actually arrived in 1910, she said. Unfortunately, they were so infested with insects and disease that the Agriculture Department had them burned. Some were spared, however, and remain alive today at a nearby golf course.

Runners also will pass the peculiar "indicator tree" near the Jefferson Memorial, which got its name because it blooms about a week before the other cherry trees. "We don't know why it blooms ahead of the others," Steketee said. "It's a mystery."

Though most tourists flock to the cherry trees during the day, savoring the blossoms after sunset can be particularly rewarding. For eight nights during the festival, National Park Service rangers will give lantern-lit walks around the Tidal Basin.

In Japan, viewing the blossoms at night is called "yozakura," said Nobumitsu Kamio, assistant secretary to the Japanese Embassy. The tradition can take on a party-like atmosphere as revelers hang lanterns from the branches and eat, drink sake and sing under the trees.

Another way to elude the daytime crowds is to hop on a boat. Enjoying the blossoms by water has become so popular in recent years that one Washington company has started offering two-hour river cruises in which teas, sandwiches and scones are served. Most of the tickets are sold out in advance.

"It's a whole different perspective," said Doug Gerry of Capital Yacht Charters. "You get to see trees you don't from the land."

Though the Tidal Basin is the most scenic spot, it isn't the only place to see the blossoms, festival organizers say. There are thousands of cherry trees on Hains Point -- the tip of land where the Potomac and Anacostia rivers meet. Rows of the trees also can be found along Anacostia Park in southeast Washington.

The blossoms' beauty is fleeting, though. Robert DeFeo, the chief horticulturist for the National Park Service, predicted the flowers' peak would be the first few days of the festival.

Kwon, who plans to stroll past the trees despite his frustrations with the crush of people, said he is motivated by his wife, who will be seeing the blossoms for the very first time.

"If you haven't seen it once, you have to do it," he said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.

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Stubborn Homeowners live by Oozing Volcano

KALAPANA, Hawaii (AP) March 25, 2008 -- As fiery lava pours down Kilauea volcano toward Jean Olson's lonely wooden house, incinerating everything in its path, there's no place she'd rather be.

Jean Olson's house sits atop of an active lava field, with volcanic gas billowing on March 19 in Kalapana.

1 of 3 "Why would I live here if I didn't like it? I have the best view of anyone in town," said Olson, who lives just over a mile from fountains of glowing lava spewing into the ocean. "Either she comes or she doesn't. If she comes, we'll pick up and leave."

Thousands of visitors a day come to nearby Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to watch Kilauea erupt, something it has been doing for a quarter-century.

But some residents live with the boiling lava every day and revel in the notion that their homes and lives are subject to the whims of earth's awesome underground forces.

The danger has become clearer in recent weeks.

Earlier this month, a two-block-wide swath of lava burned through abandoned homes and reached the ocean. And the first gas explosion at Kilauea's peak since 1924 scattered gravel onto a tourist lookout, road and trail before daybreak last week, injuring no one but spreading fear.

Olson and her scattered neighbors have built houses atop blasted land of hardened black crust where previous neighborhoods were destroyed by lava flows in 1990. Most get their power from solar panels, their water from the rain and some of their food from gardens planted between lava rocks. Until a new lava viewing area began drawing big crowds a few weeks ago, they lived in relative isolation.

"This is heaven on earth," said Edmund Orian, who is building a house by hand out of lava rocks in Kalapana. "Living near a volcano keeps you aware that God is in control. If the lava comes, we can always move."

Kilauea has not been the kind of volcano that shoots lava from its summit into the sky, causing widespread destruction for miles around.

Instead, it has been a shield volcano, or one that oozes lava from fissures in its sides, giving residents at least a few hours' warning before it reaches their property. An estimated 8,500 people live in the Pahoa-Kalapana area at the volcano's base on the southeastern section of the Big Island.

In the 25 years of Kilauea's latest eruption, lava has not directly caused any deaths, according to National Park Service rangers, though there have been five fatalities when sightseers fell, got burned or suffered heart attacks.

Brenda Quihano witnessed the volcano obliterate her family's home in 1984, but her family wants to move back if Kilauea ever calms down a bit. She now lives in the Hawaiian Beaches neighborhood about 15 miles away, and the approaching lava doesn't scare her.

"If you worry about something and it doesn't happen, you look like a fool," said Quihano as she sold water, flashlights and cameras to volcano viewers. "I'm more scared of people than I am a volcano."

Lava recently destroyed four old structures in the mostly abandoned Royal Gardens subdivision, though two residents there refuse to move out. The molten rock has cut off Royal Gardens from the rest of the island, and the neighborhood is now accessible only by motorcycle, all-terrain vehicle or helicopter.

The current flow comes within 600 feet of the new viewing area, where people can watch the lava roll toward the ocean as it creates thick steam and new land.

It is difficult to forecast where the lava will go next or when the next major explosion will come, said Dave Wilson, a seismologist at Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. Significant activity would probably be preceded by hundreds of small earthquakes.

"At that point, you can say, 'Hey, we need to get everyone out of here because this looks like something bad is going to happen,"' Wilson said.

When that time comes, resident Gary Smith will be ready to forsake his two-story house.

"It's no big deal. You make peace with that when you build here," said Smith, who moved in three years ago. "It's amazing. People can live here and be responsible for themselves and have the government stay out of their lives."

Besides lava reflections that paint the sky orange and easy access to the ocean, there's another reason people choose to live near the volcano: the price of land.

Property atop lava rock that could be overrun again at any time doesn't sell for much, and no developer is going to spend much on infrastructure for a neighborhood that has disappeared before and will probably do so again.

Olson said she paid $3,000 for about six acres in 2000, and Smith put down $95,000 for 21 acres in 2005. Both neighbors work in construction and built their houses themselves.

"It could come again and wipe this whole community out. Nobody knows," said Michael Silva, co-owner of Kalapana Village Cafe, whose business has increased by a third since the new viewing platform opened. "There's nobody out there that doesn't know what they're buying. Some people, that's the reason they come here, for the thrill of the chance."

Resident Brad Wetmore has hosted a few "lava parties" where guests bring smoked salmon, caviar and drinks to enjoy as they watch the glowing sky and smell the salty ocean.

"They have no fear whatsoever of the lava. They invite the spectacle of seeing it on a daily basis," he said. "We live with it, not against it."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press

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Lava Watchers Drawn to Erupting Kilauea

VOLCANO, Hawaii (AP) March 28, 2008 -- Visitors are flocking to witness the spectacular eruption at Hawaii's Kilauea volcano, despite explosions and toxic fumes.

A time lapse photo shows lava flowing from Kilauea volcano into the ocean on March 18.

1 of 2 Nearly 9,000 people a day are touring Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on average so far this year, a 2.5 percent increase over last year when the volcano's 25-year eruption was much more peaceful, said Cindy Orlando, the park's superintendent.

"Everybody's coming. I think they recognize they have an opportunity to participate and be here at a very historic time," Orlando said. "They're witnessing the creation of earth, and you can't experience that anywhere else in the world."

Inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, viewers can see the plume of ash and sulfur dioxide rising from Halemaumau Crater, which spewed small blobs of lava that fell along its rim this week and exploded gas and gravel-sized rocks on the summit last week -- the first such burst from Kilauea's main crater since 1924.

Outside the park along the southeast edge of the Big Island, as many as 10,000 visitors in one day have come to see fresh lava collide with the ocean, creating a giant cloud of steam, according to county and park officials. A new lookout point allows viewers to get about 600 feet from the lava flow.

Emergency officials are preparing to evacuate the area if the winds change, moving the fumes' course inland toward areas with a scattered population approaching 10,000. So far, Hawaii's famous tradewinds are pushing the plume to the southwest.

The highly concentrated levels of sulfur dioxide could pose serious health risks, especially to people with existing respiratory problems. State health officials say the gas has not posed serious problems so far because it is blowing more toward the ocean.

"It's unpredictable. The last several months have been extremely unusual, and perhaps the most exciting activity on Kilauea in decades," said Tim Orr, a geologist at Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

Most of the national park remains open, including the visitor center. But closed areas include all trails leading to Halemaumau Crater and part of Crater Rim Drive near the ash-laden toxic gas plume.

The volcano has not given rangers reason to believe it's about to blow because there's no visible lava in the crater itself, little seismic activity and no surface swell, Orlando said.

"As long as the winds stay as they are, there is no danger," she said. "The park is Hawaii's gift to the world, so we want to keep the area open as long as we can."

Park ranger Arnold Nakata said he's trying to allow as many people as possible to view the volcano's recent activity while ensuring their safety.

"This kind of activity is inevitable," Nakata said of the changing lava flows. "It's minute-to-minute. At any given time, this could stop and change."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press

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