Congratulations to Poverty Point National Monument

Poverty Point is an amazing site that also requires a bit of imagination.
Poverty Point is an amazing site that also requires a bit of imagination.


I’m a little late in getting to this news, but congratulations are in order for Poverty Point National Monument which was recently designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). This is quite an honor.  I like to think of the list of U.S. national parks as the 400-or-so most significant natural, historical, and cultural places in the United States (although there are some notable exceptions).  To be inscribed on the list UNESCO World Heritage Site, however, a place must be judged to be of “outstanding universal value” to all of humanity.  Although Poverty Point today may not be jaw-dropping to look at it, it is nevertheless the place of a remarkable story –  the location of the largest complex of preshistoric earthworks from its era in North America.

There are currently just over one thousand  sites on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list (1,007 to be exact), although more are added  each year.  Of those, Poverty Point is just the 22nd site from the United States to be included.   Of those 22, its not surprising that 13 of them are outright national parks.  This includes two of the first twelve World Heritage Sites designated in 1978, Yellowstone National Park and Mesa Verde National Park.   Others on the list include Grand Canyon National Park, Olympic National Park in Washington State, and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Five more on the list, including Poverty Point, are also part of the National Park System as a national monument or national historical park.

An unusual case is Papahanaumokuokea (try pronouncing it as Papa-hana-umo-kuo-kea) Marine National Monument in Hawaii.   This area consists of the unpopulated northwest Hawaiian Islands and the surrounding ocean areas all the way out to Midway Island in the central Pacific Ocean.  Instead of being managed by the National Park Service, it is managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

That leaves three UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the United States  that aren’t operated as Federal sites at all.    One such site is Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.   Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s estate, is operated by a non-profit foundation, and the University of Virginia, of course, is operated by the State of Virginia.   The second such site is Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, a remarkable American Indian community that has been continuously inhabited for 1,000 years.   The last such site is Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Illinois – which preserves the remains of the largest known American Indian city in the present day United States.   At its height, Cahokia covered six square miles and had between 10,000 and 20,000 people.

Although the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency is by all accounts doing a good job of preserving this extraordinary site for future generations, there nevertheless just seems to be something incongruous about a site simultaneous being a UNESCO World Heritage Site and also part of a state parks system, rather than the U.S. National Park System.   No question thatbeing a state historic site, rather than a national historic site in the National Park System gives Cahokia a lower national profile than you might otherwise expect, and so there is in fact a local campaign underway to try and make it a national park.

Interestingly, Cahokia’s situation  bears an uncanny similarity to Poverty Point in this respect as well.   It turns out that although Poverty Point is designated as a national monument, it is still operated as State Historic Site by the Louisiana State Park Service.  This is due to a quirk of history and legislation.  Normally, when Congress wishes to declare a site a new national park it normally first authorizes creation of the park, and then specifies that the park will be effectively created once the Federal government is able to acquire the land for the park.  In this case, however, the Poverty Point National Monument Act of 1986 first established the park, and then authorized the National Park Service to acquire the land for the park either by donation or from willing sellers.   Apparently, at the time the Louisiana Congressional Delegation thought that a deal had been worked out whereby the State of Louisiana would donate the Poverty Point Site to the National Park Service for management as a national park.   Its not clear what happened then, but somehow there was a miscommunication, and the State of Louisiana decided that  they wanted to continue to manage this important site themselves.   Thus, today Poverty Point National Monument is a real anomaly in the National Park System – a national park where you won’t find any sign of the National Park Service.

Now that Poverty Point has taken its rightful place as a World Heritage Site, there’s certainly no question that it merits the national significance to be included in the U.S. National Park System.  In fact, as part of the dedication ceremonies this month, the State of Louisiana has officially renamed it from Poverty Point State Historic Site to Poverty Point Point World Heritage Site, in a ceremony that included National Park Service director John Jarvis.   Despite the unusual status, in my mind, the National Park System is a better place with Poverty Point included than without it.  Still, it would be nice to see an agreement worked out where Poverty Point could take its place as a full-fledged national park, with the consistent management provided by the National Park Service.

In the meantime, a trip to Poverty Point is truly a trip back in time.  Its a rarity in the United States to visit a place where the story is told in thousand-year time scales.   For example, at nearly 3,000 years old, the settlements at Poverty Point predate the famous Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado by some two thousand years!   Three thousand years ago, the ancient Greeks were developing their alphabet, David and Solomon are kings in ancient Israel, the ancient Chinese are developing mathematics ink painting, and at Poverty Point in Louisiana, American Indians are building a major center – a place whose purpose remains a mystery to this day, but which still speaks to those who came before us in this place.

A walking trail has been constructed over the remains of the major mounds at Poverty Point.

A walking trail has been constructed over the remains of the major mounds at Poverty Point.

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Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument Fully Reopens

Alamo Canyon in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.  Credit:

Alamo Canyon in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Credit:


Visiting all the national parks in the United States can take you to some very remote places.   Few of them in the contiguous United States are as remote as Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, located on the U.S.-Mexico border some 2.5 hours west of Tucson and an equal distance south of Phoenix.    Fortunately, this park is about to become a little more accessible, as for the first time in more than 10 years, this park is now fully open to visitation.

More than 300,000 acres of this park were closed to visitiation  in 2003 in the wake of one of the most tragic events in National Park Service history.  Park Ranger Kris Eggle was fatally wounded while tracking down drug smugglers illegally crossing the border through the Park.   In response, large areas of the Park were closed to visitation due to the poor security situation.

In the ten years since this tragedy, there have been substantial improvements in border security.  If you’d like to know the specifics, the National Park Service has a great FAQ about what has changed between 2003 and now.   Additionally, Congress has very appropriately named the Park Visitor Center after Kris Eggle.   You can read more about the life of this public servant killed in the line of duty at the National Park Service’s memorial page

Fortunately, with the improvements in security, the most dangerous activities you are likely to encounter while visiting Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument these days are driving your car and not drinking enough water.

If you would like to get a better sense of what areas are being reopened, this article on the reopening from National Parks Traveler has a couple nice photos of the Quitobaquito area in the western area of the park.  On the other hand, if you are planning a more typical visit to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, the National Park Service has this helpful brochure online for how to plan your visit, based on whether you have just one hour, or else a full half day, or even longer.

The truth of the matter is that the closed areas in the park were predominantly in the undeveloped back country of this park  – areas where relatively few casual visitors were likely to tread.   Nevertheles, even for those visitors primarily planning to visit the paved scenic roads or the developed hiking trails, just knowing that some parts of the park were closed due to illegal border crossing activity likely continued to cause some potential visitors to make other plans.  That makes this unquestionably good news for the park.

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More to See at Ellis Island

Ellis Island, as viewed from the ferry to Governor's Island National Monument.
Ellis Island, as viewed from the ferry to Governor’s Island National Monument.


Ellis Island, which is operated by the National Park Service as part of Statue of Liberty National Monument, is one of those national park sites that needs almost no introduction.   The site of the immigration inspection station through which millions of new arrivals first came to the United States between 1900 and 1954 is on many peoples’ bucket lists – not just those of national park completists.   Not only has Ellis Island become almost synonymous with America’s European immigration story itself, but the Ellis Island Immigration Musem, run by the non-profit Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation, is a world-class museum meriting a place on anyone’s New York City itinerary.

Unfortunately, Ellis Island suffered severe damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and was closed for almost exactly a year in the aftermath.   As of this writing, it still has not fully re-opened.

There is good news, however, in that the National Park Service has just announced that the hospital buildings on Ellis Island will be opened to the public for the first time starting October 1, 2014.

This map from the official NPS Brochure shows the location of the hospital buildings on Ellis Island relative to the Main Building, which is now the famous Ellis Island Immigration Museum.
This map from the official NPS Brochure shows the location of the hospital buildings on Ellis Island relative to the Main Building, which is now the famous Ellis Island Immigration Museum.


If you want to take in the hospital buildings, however, it will take some planning ahead.   Access is to be limited to just four 90-minute daily tours of 10 persons each.   The ticket price for these tours of $25 will go towards funding additional preservation efforts on Ellis Island.  With only 40 tickets per day, though, I expect that many of them will sell out well in advance.

Still, it will be an interesting situation to monitor.   Also, as an interesting bit of trivia, in 1998 the Supreme Court ruled that since most of Ellis Island sits on landfill on the New Jersey side of the river, the island is technically part of the state of New Jersey.   On the other hand, the hospital buildings that are newly being opened to the public sit on the original, “natural,” Ellis Island, and so are part of the state of New York.

The Statue of Liberty National Monument generally has two Passport cancellations available, one for the Statue of Liberty and one for Ellis Island – although different variations on those cancellations have been found over the years.  For example, stamps reading “Ellis Island,” “Ellis Island National Monument” (which is technically incorrect), and “Ellis Island Immigration Museum” have all been found just within the past year on the island- some may find those differences in the Passport cancellations meaningful, whereas others may not.

In any event, if you’ve already been to Ellis Island, the opening of the hospitals may provide a good reason to make a return visit and experience a new corner of this park.   On the other hand, if you haven’t been yet, the new buildings to explore provide another reason to make the visit and walk in the footsteps of so many who left one life behind to start a new life in a far away land.

Even if you can't land one of the tickets for the tours of the hospital buildings, the Great Hall at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum is still a sight to behold.
Even if you can’t land one of the tickets for the tours of the hospital buildings, the hallways of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum are still a sight to behold.


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Undiscovered America Conversation with Erica Rosenberg

Although its only four episodes old, the Undiscovered America Podcast has already become one of my favorites. The podcast is done by blogger Zack Frank, who runs the blog of the same name, and is scheduled to have new episodes releaed on a biweekly basis.  Each episode features a converation between Zack Frank and a traveler or park advocate.  Although I am a little late in getting to writing a post about it, Episode #3 with Congressional staffer Erica Rosenberg was particularly interesting. You can give it a listen by downloading it from Itunes or Stitcher, or by listening to it directly here:

As readers of this blog know, I’m a big advocate for new national parks, in the belief that the National Park System should be inclusive of all of the Nation’s most-significant natural, historical, and cultural places. Erica Rosenberg, in an earlier phase in her life, founded an organization called People United for Parks. Sadly, one of the lessons she learned from her experience with that organization is that there isn’t a national constituency for establishing new national parks. Zak Frank pointed out that although organizations like the National Park Foundation, the National Parks Conservation Asasociation,  and the Sierra Club all advocate for the creation of new national parks as part of their broader advocacy efforts, none of those organizaitons place the creation of new parks at the top of their agenda.

The truth of the matter is that “all politics is local,” and this is especially true of national parks.  The residents of the community and state where a new national park will be created will be most impacted by the setting aside of that land, so their support is crucial.   Moreover, the core visitors of any national park unit (with the exception of a few “destination” parks) are visitors from the immediately surrounding community, and likewise, it is their support that will be crucial for advancing the proposal.

Along the way, the conservation highlights a few of my favorite proposals for new national parks in the eastern United States, including Maine North Woods National Park in Maine and High Allegheny National Park in West Virginia.   In particular, these proposals are not just for new national historic sites, which are relatively easy to create, but true national park national parks that would be full-fledged, full-service national parks.

The discussion continues with another good discussion on the balance between the desire and to designate wilderness, which is the highest-level of preservation that can be established in the United States, and the inherent need to establish facilities in national parks “for the enjoyment of the people” – to quote the inscription on the gateway arch to Yellowstone National Park.

Anyhow, the whole thing is a great conversation, I encourage you to listen to it, and also to subscribe to the Undiscovered America Podcast through your favorite podcast service.

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Extraordinary Outdoor Art Exhibit: Out of Many, One

The National Park Service has approved a truly extraodinary outdoor art exhibit in Washington, DC along the south side of the Reflecting Pool in what is formally known as West Potomac Park*.   Cuban-American Artist Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada took dozens of photographs of ordinary people in Washington, DC and used those photographs to create a composite image. That composite image was then used as the template for the landscaped image installed by the Reflecting Pool.  Incredibly, satellite navigation is used to ensure that the lines are precisely drawn.

See this video for more on how it was built.

The website has several great photographs of the completed work of art.  You will want to check it out as the image really is striking.  Also included at the link are photographs of how the work appears at ground level, showing how the visual image that appears from a distance is created.

Finally, the Washington Post has an excellent infographic on the installation, including photographs of a similar installation that Rodriguez-Garada did in Northern Ireland.

“Out of Many, One” will be in place throughout the month of October.  After the end of its run, the sand and dirt will be tilled back into the soil.   A visit to the mounmental core of Washington, DC is always a special experience.   For the next month, visitors will get an extra dose of the extraordinary.

* – As a little bit of National Park trivia, although this exhibition is generally referred to as being on the National Mall, technically the National Mall is legally the open greenspace between the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol Building.  Of course, in popular usage, the National Mall now includes the entire monumental core of Washington, DC including the Washington Mounment grounds, West Potomac Park, and the area around the Tidal Basin.


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How National Heritage Areas Fit into the National Park System

The list of new stamps for October inspired me to write a little background post on National Heritage Areas.

A National Heritage Area (NHA) is one of several partnership programs managed by the National Park Service.  All National Heritage Areas are designated by Congress, and apply to a specific geographic area, usually an area of multiple counties.  A National Heritage Area generally does not have any sites that are directly manged by the Naitonal Park Service.  Instead, each National Heritage Area authorization also designates an official “partnerhip organization” that will work with the National Park Service to develop projects and programs within the geographic area of the NHA.   The projects and programs developed within an NHA can include things like historic preservation, development of interpretive displays, educational outreach projects,  resource conservation, and tourism promotion.  The Alliance of National Heritage Areas is the industry association for the various NHA partnership organizations around the country.

Like many things in the National Park System (and in fairness, like many things that originate in Congress), designations are not always done consistently.   Although the vast majority of NHA’s carry the name National Heritage Area, such as the Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area in northeastern Alabama, several other designations abound.  The very first National Heritage Area, the Illinois & Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor in northeastern Illinois, was designated 30 years ago in 1984.   Around a half-dozen other NHA’s go by the designation of national heritage corridor, although there is no distinction between that and a national heritage area.   Several others have unique designations including the National Coal Heritage Area in south-central West Virginia, the National Aviation Heritage Area in and around Dayton, Ohio, the Great Basin National Heritage Route in Nevada and Utah, and the Champlain Valley National Heritage Partnership along the New York-Vermont border.

Just as there are a variety of designations, National Heritage Areas can vary greatly in size and scope.  The Wheeling National Heritage Area consists of just the city of Wheeling, WV, tucked in to a sliver of land between Pennsylvania and Ohio.  On the other hand, the Gullah-Geechee National Heritage Corridor stretches along the Atlantic Coast from southern North Carolina through South Carolina and Georgia and into northern Florida.  The Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area is particularly unusual, covering the all civil war sites across the whole state of Tennessee.   Go figure.

Similarly, when it comes to the Passport Program, the 49 National Heritage Areas are all over the map.   Currently, 9 of them don’t have any Passport stamps at all.  One of those is because the partner association for the Heritage Area went out of business.  Another originally put two passport stamps in regional visitor centers, but later decided to discontinue the visitor center operations and focus on other activities.   Two others of those nine offer a picture stamp, but which unlike traditional Passport cancellations, does not have a date in the center.  The other five have all been established within the last ten years and have simply never participated in the program.

Of the remainder, 21 National Heritage Areas have either just one stamp located at the headquarters offices or a central visitor’s center, or else have just two stamps.

That leaves 19 National Heritage Areas that fully participate in the Passport Program with cancellations available at multiple locations in the area.   Even here, there is a broad range.   The Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm National Heritage Area in south-central Alaska has three locations.   By contrast, the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area in New York State has a whopping 67 Passport cancellations – enough to fill the North Atlantic section of a traditional blue Passport book more than three times over!

Suffice to say, National Heritage Areas come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and flavors.  At their best, National Heritage Areas bring in to the National Park System areas that would not otherwise be suitable for direct management like the National Park System.  A great example of this is the Motorcities National Heritage Area in eastern Michigan, which includes many of that area’s world-class automotive museums.   Among those is The Henry Ford Museum, which is on many people’s bucket list, even without being Parks Passport completists.   The downside is that since National Heritage Areas operate via local partnerships, and without direct management by the National Park Service, they sometimes fail to provide the consistent visitation experience that we have come to expect from out-and-out national parks.

With that being said, I am strong believe that the National Park System, and by extension, the Passport Program, should include all of the United States’ most-significant natural, historical, and cultural sites.  The National Heritage Area program is at its best when its bringing some of America’s treasures into the National Park System, even though they will probably never be suitable for direct management by the National Park Service.   The National Park System is a better place when it includes the Motorcities, the Erie Canalway, and Niagara Falls – all of which would surely be worthy for inclusion in the National Park Service based on their national significance alone, but which either do not lend themselves easily to a traditional national park, or else are already being well- managed by outside entities, or both.

As Congress has become more budget-conscious in recent year, there have not been any new National Heritage Area designations since 9 were designated in 2009.   Both the career staff of the National Park Service and the Government Acountability Office have called for Congress to establish a stronger vision for what a National Heritage Area should be, and what the criteria should be for establishing such an area.   The rapid proliferation of National Heritage Areas in the 2000’s, in which 31 out of the 49 National Heritage Areas were established between 2000 and 2009 probably represented too-fast growth.    Nevertheless, the National Park System and the Passport Program would have some clear missing holes without them.


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New Stamps for October

The calendar has rolled over to October, and the folks at Eastern National have made their monthly announcement of new Passport Cancellations.   This month there are four new stamps, all for the Champlain Valley National Heritage Partnership.  The Parternship  covers the region surrounding Lake Champlain in New York and Vermont, and is one of the current total of 49 National Heritage Areas.

The four new stamps for the Champlain Valley National Heritage Partnership are:

These four stamps join the existing stamp for the Gordon-Center House, which serves as the heritage area’s headquarters in the town of Grand Isle, Vermont.

These four new locations are not particularly surprising additions to the Passport Program for this Heritage Area, considering that thus far they only had a stamp for their headquarters.  These new stamps will take Passport collectors out into some of the sites in the heritage area.   The Lake Champlain Visitors Center is the regional tourist information center in Ticonderoga, NY at the southern end of Lake Champlain, and was perhaps the most-obvious Passport location candidate.

Meanwhile, the Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge is located at the northern end of Lake Champlain, on the border between Vermont and Canada.  It is one of the only Federally-managed facilities in the Heritage Area, and so was also logical choice for a Passport cancellation.

The Lake Champlain Maritime Museum is located a bit north of Ticonderoga on the Vermont side of Lake Champlain.   It is the sort of regional history museum that is always a prime candidate for a Passport cancellation in a National Heritage Area, as these are the sorts of partners that National Heritage Areas are almost seemingly designed to promote.

Perhaps the most-surprising choice of the four is the Art Museum located at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Plattsburgh – which is on the northern end of Lake Champlain on the New York side.   However, the Silos and Smokestacks National Heritage Area in Iowa includes a Passport Cancellation at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, where you can view the world-famous painting, American Gothic.  Meanwhile, the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area, just to the south of the Champlain Valley in New York State has several stamps at art museums, including one at the art museum on the campus of SUNY New Paltz (and another that was formerly located on the campus of SUNY Purchase.)  So locating a National Heritage Area Passport cancellation at an art museum is not unprecedented.   However, I’ll be interested in learning more over the coming months as to why this particular location was selected.

Finally, its worth noting that surprising by its omission is Fort Ticonderoga.   Fort Ticonderoga was the site of a significant Revolutionary War engagement in the Saratoga Campaign, so it arguably is of sufficient significance to merit outright national park status.   However, it is currently privately owned and operated, so its possible that the necessary partnership agreements have not yet been worked out.

With the addition of these four stamps to the Passport program, there are now, by my count, 1,935 available Passport cancellations.

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