Gulf oil spill: What's the impact on national parks?
So far, only the Gulf Coast National Seashore has seen oil on its barrier islands. But park officials from Louisiana for Florida's space coast are bracing for more oil.
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Initial relief that the Exxon Valdez spill occurred some 100 miles from Kenai Fjords National Park quickly evaporated once it became clear that the spill had defied efforts to keep the oil in the general area where the tanker ran aground. Eventually, the oil fouled coastal portions of three national park-related areas stretching some 400 miles from the spill, according to a report by then-park service historian Rick Kurtz.Skip to next paragraph
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The lesson hasn't been lost on parks in the Gulf region. Oil has been entering Louisiana's Barataria Bay, some 20 miles from the southern tip of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve.
From the outset of the blowout April 20, employees have been taking a range of plant and water samples to provide a baseline for assessing any damage should oil work its way into the preserve – avoiding a shortcoming Dr. Kurtz's report highlighted in Alaska.
Canaveral National Seashore is the latest in the string of Florida National Park locations to set up contingency plans. The trigger for implementing them: the first tarballs clearly identifiable as Deepwater Horizon oil that wash up on the Dry Tortugas – something that has not yet happened.
Distance from the spill has given parks time to conduct the resource surveys they'll need for any cleanup or efforts to recover damages.
Sensitive habitats are one key concern.
"We have the world's biggest nesting ground for sooty terns on Bush Key," part of the Dry Tortugas National Park some 70 miles west of Key West, Fla., Ms. Friar says. "Should that island be affected, we would have to be very cautious about how we would clean it up."
It's a tiny island that is closed to the public, in large part because "the birds don't nest very well if there are lots of people walking around," Friar says.
Cultural resources need protecting
Beyond the birds are the cultural resources, which are sometimes more challenging to protect. Shell mounds, for instance, may not look like much to the casual visitor or to a front-end-loader operator, but they could well represent evidence of prehistoric cultures living in the area.
"We have to protect those for number of reasons," Friar says.
To ensure that clean-up efforts don't destroy such resources, park employees have been accompanying clean-up crews in oil-tainted areas to prevent damage to cultural sites. The Exxon Valdez clean-up effort led to the discovery of several archaeological sites within park boundaries that no one knew about before, Mr. Quinley says. Some of those were destroyed by the effort, as well. Indeed, in many instances, officials now say some of the cleaning techniques were more harmful than the oil.
Collectively, the parks in the Gulf region attract at least 8 million visitors a year, says the National Parks Conservation Association's Mr. Adornato.
For all the preparations, park representatives emphasize that they are still open for business. With the exception of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, no oil has yet tainted their boundaries.
IN PICTURES: Places where the Gulf oil spill has made landfall