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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

Secretary Jewell partners with IMPACT for MLK Weekend of Service

January 27, 2014 in Connecting People to Parks, Preservation, Uncategorized

At the conclusion of his now famous, “I Have a Dream Speech,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. pressed America to let freedom ring from the “prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire,” from the “mighty mountains of New York,” from the “heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania,” and throughout the nation.  Dr. King referenced the natural beauty of America as a backdrop to his dream of freedom, equality, and brotherhood.  The speech was given at a National Park – the Lincoln Memorial, and the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” that Dr. King culminated took place on public lands.

As beneficiaries of both the dream and the natural beauty of our nation, we have a responsibility to be good stewards of our national parks and public lands.  In this spirit, during the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Weekend of Service, Secretary Sally Jewell and several DOI staff joined the National Park Service and their partner IMPACT to engage in a beautification project at and around the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.

IMPACT is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to engage and build a network of young professionals of color to foster civic engagement, increase knowledge of the political and legislative processes, and enhance economic empowerment opportunities.  IMPACT is proud to continue supporting NPS in ensuring that the MLK Memorial and National Mall are as beautiful as the words spoken Dr. King.  The Secretary’s involvement in these service activities signals the importance of honoring the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and ensuring that America’s national parks and public lands are preserved for future generations.

Researching Asian American/Pacific Islander History

May 13, 2013 in Preservation

In 2012, Secretary Salazar initiated the Asian American/Pacific Islander Heritage Initiative.   This initiative will enable the National Historic Landmarks Program to locate and document important sites associated with the contributions made by Asian American and Pacific Islander throughout our history.  A White House Forum on Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage was held this month.


On May 9th, scholars, preservationists, and National Historic Landmarks Program staff met, as they did in January 2013, to develop a structure for a theme study on Asian American and Pacific Islander history.  This theme study will ultimately result in the nomination of sites associated with this diverse history.  Even before this theme study was initiated, the National Historic Landmarks Program had begun to locate, research, and document sites associated with the history of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.  Research on sites ranging from an early twentieth-century Chinese temple to a house associated with one of the most important Japanese American artists of the twentieth century is ongoing.


A National Historic Landmark (NHL) is a historic building, site, structure, object, or district that represents an outstanding aspect of American history and culture. There are over 2,500 properties designated National Historic Landmarks.  For more information, please visit the National Historic Landmarks Program website.

21CSC Can Provide Jobs for Youth, Cultivate a Park-Minded Generation, and do Critical Maintenance at Low Cost

January 24, 2013 in Preservation

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) maintained or constructed more than 100,000 miles of trails, planted more than 3 billion trees, and provided jobs to more than 2.5 million young men during the decade it operated after the Great Depression. The 21st Century Conservation Service Corps (21CSC) intends to replicate the CCC’s incredible impact on our protected lands, especially our National Parks. The 21CSC is meant to provide a solution to two critical issues: 1) unemployment rates among America’s youth and returning veterans and 2) the NPS maintenance backlog of more than $11 billion that includes critical work necessary to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife” in our parks. In short, the 21CSC can be the win-win that is so often sought in public policy programs and is why it greatly excites me.

The 21CSC was the first recommendation made in the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative Report to the President on February 7, 2011. Secretary Salazar then established a federal committee to make recommendations on how to create a 21CSC; this committee released its final report on September 5, 2012. It can be read here. The report does a nice job making specific recommendations and clearly laying out how this program will be different from the CCC. For instance, the 21CSC won’t have as many members (100,000 vs. 300,000 annually) and will be primarily funded by private sources rather than by the taxpayer. Also importantly, it is recommended that the 21CSC primarily use an innovative projects-based approach where funding goes to natural resource managers to complete specific projects rather than just giving general funds to program operators.

The evidence shows that this model of having youth do maintenance work in our public lands can work. For one, the 21CSC can build off the success of the more than 150 service and conservation corps currently operating in all 50 states. Second, utilizing a corps program can actually save the government money. A recent NPS study found a potential 56% cost savings for utilizing corps to complete cyclic maintenance projects. Aside from the cost savings, there is also a significant positive impact on participants. Abt Associates performed a six-year study on 21 youth corps for the Corporation for National and Community Service. The report from the study, released in June 2011, showed an increase from 50% to 67% in educational enrollment and employment by corps members over the course of the study. Furthermore, nearly two-thirds of program participants said that their participation helped them secure a job, and three out of four said that the experience gave them a job-hunting advantage.

On January 10, 2013, leaders of eight federal departments and agencies announced the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding to establish the National Council for the 21CSC. According to the Department of Interior’s press release, this National Council will spearhead the 21CSC’s next steps: “enhancing partnerships with the existing youth corps programs, stimulating existing and new public-private partnerships, and aligning the investment of current federal government resources.” I think it’s also critical that a database of metrics to keep track of the 21CSC’s impact is instituted. This database is important because private funders will demand evidence of the social return on their investment. Additionally, having this data will allow the National Council to make data-driven decisions on how to make the 21CSC more effective. There seems to be an understanding of the importance of metrics as supporting recommendation 3.3.1 in the federal committee’s report calls for a national database, and appendix c of the report gives a comprehensive list of data that could be collected.

Ultimately, the 21CSC is a no-brainer. It’s actually a win-win-win: youth and veterans will get jobs, public lands will get maintained, and a new generation of environmental stewards will be created. With all these benefits, it advances several of the actions in the NPS A Call to Action including action #2, creating deep connections between a younger generation and parks.


New Conditions, New Needs

September 14, 2012 in Preservation

The Science Committee of the National Park Service Advisory Board recent released Revisiting Leopold: Resource Stewardship in the National Parks, a contemporary effort to revisit the 1960s “Leopold Report” which served for decades as a guiding document for natural resource stewardship.  The new report examines both natural and cultural resource management within the NPS.  In a significant change from the original report, the committee recommends managing for change rather than for static “vignette of primitive America.”  Environmental, cultural and socioeconomic changes are far more complex and diverse.  As the report notes, “It is an essential finding of this committee that given the dynamic and complex nature of this change, the manager and decision maker must rely on science for guidance in understanding novel conditions, threats, and risks to parks now and in the future.”

Here is one of many questions: How do we expand the role of partners, academic institutions and other public agencies in developing place-based scientific expertise and expanding collaboration across park or programmatic boundaries?  What, if any, are the barriers that must be overcome?