Wednesday, December 16, 2015

National Park of American Samoa

The National Park of American Samoa welcomes you into the heart of the South Pacific with sights, sounds, and experiences that you will find in no other national park in the United States. The Samoa Archipelago is a chain of inhabited Pacific islands located 14ยบ south of the equator. It is divided into two political entities, the United States Territory of American Samoa and the neighboring independent country of Western Samoa.

The park was established in 1988, but the National Park Service could not buy the land because of the local traditional communal land system. This was resolved in 1993 when the National Park Service entered into a 50-year lease for the park land from the Samoan village councils. In 2002, Congress approved a thirty percent expansion onto two islands, so now The National Park of American Samoa is really three parks on three separate islands -- Ta'u, Ofu, and Tutuila -- and is our sole park located in the Southern Hemisphere (near the International Date Line.)

The United States Government was unable to acquire the necessary park lands outright as has been done in most other United States national parks, because American Samoa retains many longstanding cultural traits relatively unchanged over time. Among them, Samoans retain their ways of communal ownership of land, an oral tradition of boundaries rather than written or surveyed boundaries, and a fierce protection of land and the status land provides a family.

The deeds of cession that the United States signed when making American Samoa a United States territory in 1900, and the American Samoan constitution, both provide the Samoan people a guarantee for this cultural tradition to continue. Thus it was impossible for the United States to acquire and own the lands for a national park. Instead, the law that established the park stipulated, "The Secretary of the Interior shall establish the park only when the Governor of American Samoa has entered into a lease of the lands and waters for a period of 50 years. All lease payments made by the United States under the lease may be disbursed only by the Governor, in amounts determined by the High Court of American Samoa, to those villages and families located within the boundaries of the park. The High Court of American Samoa shall have exclusive jurisdiction to determine the amount to be disbursed under this section to any person."

Samoa, the only U.S. territory south of the Equator, consists of 10 rugged, highly eroded volcanic islands (five inhabited) and two coral atolls (one inhabited). The land area of the territory is 76 square miles.  The five volcanic islands are Tutuila, Aunu'u, Ofu, Olosega, and Ta'u, and the two remote atolls are Rose and Swains Islands. The park preserves and protects coral reefs, tropical rainforests, fruit bats, and the Samoan culture, which is Polynesia's oldest. It is believed that the first people on the Samoan Islands came by sea from southwest Asia some 3,000 years ago.

American Samoa's population is about 70,000, with most of the people on Tutuila. Except for perhaps a few thousand individuals, nearly all inhabitants of American Samoa are indigenous Samoans of Polynesian ancestry. More than any other U.S. or Polynesian people, Samoans are tradition-oriented and closely follow social customs and hierarchies from long before the arrival of the first Europeans. This Samoan way (called fa'asamoa) is still deeply ingrained in American Samoa culture. The most apparent characteristic is the Samoan matai system of organization and philosophy. In general each village is made up of a group of alga (extended families) which include as many relatives as can be claimed.

The United States' National Park System protects and preserves outstanding locations representing our country's finest natural, scenic, cultural, and scientific heritage. American Samoa National Park adds to the National Park System the finest examples of paleo-tropical rainforest, superb Pacific island scenery, and outstanding coral reef ecosystems .

The park is popular for hiking and snorkeling. Popular destinations include the Maugaloa Ridge, the Amalau Valley, Craggy Point, Tafeu Cove, and the islands of Pola and Manofa. Only part of the park is accessible by car and that section attracts the vast majority of visitors. The entire park has steep terrain and unstable volcanic soils due to its tropical rainfall climate and it is very hard to build and maintain trails in this environment. Though the park is new and has a very small staff, some short to moderate trails have been completed, including a trail to the top of Mount Alava (1610 feet) and its historic World War II gun emplacement sites at Breakers Point and Blunt's Point. The trail runs along the ridge in dense forest, north of which the land slopes steeply away to the ocean.

The coral fringing reefs of the park shelter the greatest marine biodiversity in the U.S. and its possessions. The 80-plus native fish and 200-plus coral species of the park are bewildering and awesome. Except for a few wide-ranging seabirds and marine fishes, most of Samoa’s biota is strikingly different from that of all other U.S. National Parks. The only native land mammals are three bat species. For a newcomer from the mainland, this national park will likely present a bewildering array of paleo-tropical plants, forest birds, reef fishes, and corals.  991 fish species representing 113 families are also found in or near the park, about twice the number occurring in Hawaii, but half the number in the Indo-Pacific region.

Drinking unfiltered and unpurified stream waters, or swimming in freshwater streams with open sores or cuts, may expose you to typical tropical maladies -- diarrhea, giardiasis, dysentery, hepatitis, and leptospirosis.

There are numerous archeological sites found within the national park boundaries. Below is an old grave site.

Although there is no official code, dress is very modest in American Samoa. Men and women should wear clothes that cover the shoulders and knees, and when swimming or snorkeling, you must cover your bathing suit with shirt and shorts.

Plant communities of the park, from the mountaintops down to the ocean, are largely tropical rainforest. It is an evergreen forest with the vegetation of the equatorial climate. Unlike the temperate forests of North America dominated by one or only a few tree species, tropical rainforests have high species diversity and the climax forest (a forest community that is stable and mature and no longer evolving) is dominated by many species. Samoa, as a geologically young ocean island, lacks any earlier land connection to continental land masses. Because its native species got here by chance, its species diversity is not as rich as Southeast Asia, the main source of the islands' plant dispersals.

During northern summers, three shorebirds -- plover, turnstone, and tattler -- nest in Alaska and northern Canada. After nesting, they fly non-stop over 3,000 miles of open ocean to Hawaii, and after briefly resting there, they continue another 2,500 miles to American Samoa. The round-trip journey each year is 11,000 miles!

There are two fruit bat species in American Samoa representing the only native mammals. They are important pollinators and seed distributors in the tropical rainforests. The animal life of the National Park of American Samoa is unique among the U.S. National Parks. Key animal forms, from the flying foxes or fruit bats in the mountains to the massive coral reefs along the shorelines, shape all natural ecosystems here. Flying foxes are important terrestrial pollinators and thus this rain forest is dominated by fruit-bearing species, in contrast to Hawaii where the native forests are pollinated largely by nectar seeking birds and insects.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Alaska's Kobuk Valley National Park

Alaska's Kobuk Valley National Park  began as a national monument in 1978 and was elevated to national park status on December 2, 1980. It is named after the Kobuk River valley which runs through its center. "Kobuk" is an Inupiaq Eskimo word meaning "big river."

The park includes 1,750,716 acres (2,735 square miles) which is approximately the size of the state of Delaware. Much of the southern portion of the park south of the Kobuk River is managed as the Kobuk Valley Wilderness which contains 174,545 acres. The Selawik Wilderness lies to the south in the adjoining Selawik National Wildlife Refuge. Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve lies 32 miles to the east. The tallest mountain in the park is Mount Angayukaqsraq at 4760 feet in height.

The park consists of the broad wetlands valley of the Kobuk River which runs along the southern edge of the western Brooks Range known as the Baird Mountains. The boundary of the park runs along the Baird Mountains in the north and the shorter Waring Mountains in the south that form a ring enclosing the Kobuk Valley. The middle two-thirds of the Kobuk River from just above Kiana to just below Ambler is included in the park, as are several of its major tributaries such as the Salmon River and the Hunt River. The valley floor is mainly covered by glacial drift.

While no glaciers currently exist within the park, at least five major glaciations have been identified.  Sand created by the grinding action of the ancient glaciers has been carried to the Kobuk Valley by wind and water and thus dunes that are naturally stabilized by vegetation now cover much of the southern portion of the valley. River bluffs composed of sand and standing as high as 150 feet hold permafrost ice wedges and the fossils of Ice Age mammals.

Three sets of sand dune fields are located on the south side of the Kobuk River. The Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, Little Kobuk Sand Dunes, and the Hunt River Dunes are remnants of dunefields that covered as much as 200,000 acres immediately after the retreat of Pleistocene glaciation. A combination of outwash deposits from the glaciers and strong winds created the dunes which are now mostly covered by forest and tundra.

Active dune fields currently cover about 20,500 acres. The Great Kobuk Sand Dunes comprise the largest active Arctic dune field in North America. NASA has funded a study of the dunes as an analog for Martian polar dunes. The Kobuk River on the north side of the dunes meanders roughly 61 miles through the park providing a means of travel for people and wildlife.

Weather in the park is subject to extremes. The average low temperature in January is −8 °F and can reach nighttime lows of −50°F. Summer temperatures average around 65°F and can reach 85°F. Since the park is north of the Arctic Circle, the sun does not set from June 3 to July 9, and the sun is visible for only one and a half hours on the winter solstice, with long periods of twilight on either side of sunrise and sunset. As is the case over all of northern Alaska, the aurora borealis is often visible on winter nights when solar activity is high. Snow can happen at any time of the year, and wind and rain are common in summer. The park lies in a transition zone between boreal forest and tundra.

Human habitation in Kobuk Valley is believed to extend back at least 12,500 years. The present inhabitants of the valley are the Inupiat people who subsist on hunting and fishing. The first inhabitants of the Kobuk Valley were people of the Paleo-Arctic Tradition who hunted caribou at Onion Portage. The region was apparently deserted for about 2,000 years until people of the Archaic tradition appeared in the valley from the south and east. By about 4,000 years ago, people of the Arctic Small Tool tradition arrived but departed between 1,500 and 1,000 years ago, again leaving the valley unoccupied.

New people arrived by about 1200 AD as documented by the Ahteut site 25 miles downriver from Onion Portage. People remained in the valley until the mid-19th century when the caribou population declined and people moved closer to the coast. These people were the Akunirmiut and Kuuvaum Kangiamirnuit. One of their villages was located in the present park at the mouth of the Hunt River. Their descendents, now known as the Kuuvangmiit, have mostly moved out of park lands. About 32 prospectors' camps were established during a short gold rush in 1899 and 1900. Surveys have not yet located their camps, although debris associated with the miners' boats has been found. The park's headquarters are at the Northwest Arctic Heritage Center in Kotzebue about 100 miles west of the park on the Bering Sea coast.

The Kobuk River is a low gradient, slow-moving river. Starting in the village of Ambler, boating through the park and ending in the village of Kiana will take five to seven days. The best time to float the Kobuk River is July through early September. Be cautious about ice beginning to form on the river in September. Ice break-up and freeze-up times can vary, so pay close attention to weather data before and during your trip.

The park does not have an entrance gate, nor does it collect any fees to travel or camp in the park. There are no designated trails, roads, accommodations, or public facilities within the park, and backcountry camping is the only way to spend the night. Visitors can find minimal supplies in the villages of Ambler and Kiana. Many “visitors” are local residents traveling through the park from village to village or entering for subsistence activities.

The most visible animals are the 400,000 caribou of the Western Arctic herd which migrates annually through the park twice a year – north in the spring and south in the fall - between their winter breeding grounds south of the Waring Mountains and their summer calving grounds north of the Baird Mountains. The herd's annual crossing of the Kobuk River is central to the Inupiaq people's subsistence hunting. Caribou tracks crisscross the 25 square miles of the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes. While hunting is not usually associated with national parks, local area residents are allowed to hunt and trap in Kobuk Valley National Park and local Alaskan residents still feed their families with caribou from the river crossing in the fall.

The fish and wildlife in the park are typical of arctic and subarctic fauna. River drainages on the north side of the Kobuk River support a healthy chum salmon run. River drainages on the south side of the Kobuk are better suited for whitefish species such as sheefish that can weigh 60 pounds.  Fish species include chum salmon, Pink salmon, sockeye salmon, with other salmonids including Dolly Varden, Arctic char, lake trout, and Arctic grayling.

Large mammals in the park include caribou, moose, gray wolf, black bear, brown bear, and Dall's sheep. Smaller mammals include wolverines, mink, porcupine, snowshoe hares, and voles.