Protected lands: The National Park Service's newest sites

Protected lands: The National Park Service's newest sites, From mammoths to mill towns, these new protected sites offer a trip into the past 

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The park is home to abundant wildlife including moose, black bear, white-tailed deer, snowshoe hare, American marten, bobcat and the federally threatened Canada lynx.(Photo: National Park Service/Christina Marts)

Some of our national preserved lands are meant to inspire awe and wonder with their sheer magnificence; it requires no imagination or effort to marvel at a Yellowstone or a Yosemite. Other sites run by the National Park Service are more modest, provoking curiosity and reflection about our country’s past. Our newest protected spots tend to fall more into the latter category.

Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, Maine: The newest addition to the National Park System, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument is a 87,500-acre expanse of the Maine North Woods donated by the founder of Burt’s Bees. The rugged wilderness that inspired Henry David Thoreau, John James Audubon and Teddy Roosevelt offers spectacular vistas with views of Mount Katahdin, Maine’s highest peak. Paddlers revel on the whitewater streams and quiet lakes, while the dark night skies are ideal for stargazing, with occasional displays of the aurora borealis. The park is home to abundant wildlife including moose, black bear, white-tailed deer, snowshoe hare, American marten, bobcat and the federally threatened Canada lynx.

Katahdin, which is already open to the public, offers a contrast to Acadia National Park, a two-hour drive to the east, said Christina Marts, community planner for the new monument. “Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument captures the unique culture and ecology of the north woods in Maine, a very different experience than the coastal environment and history of Acadia,” she said. Visitor amenities are still in the planning phases but some basic facilities are in place. There is limited cell service in the area, so visitors are advised to come prepared for a true wilderness experience.

Pullman National Monument, Chicago, Ill.: More than once in its 150-year history, this model community became a battleground for what remains some of the most heated issues of the day: labor relations, race relations and income inequality. Today those who administer it hope that it can be a place that fosters understanding. Highlights include monthly walking tours (the first Sunday of the month), and a new train service from downtown Chicago, with rangers meeting visitors on the platform. “They’ll be traveling on the same right-of-way that Abe Lincoln’s body came in on in the funeral train,” said Michael Shymanski of the Historic Pullman Foundation. “When it left for Springfield, it had a Pullman car attached.”

Valles Caldera National Preserve, N.M.: 150 years may seem like a long time until you contemplate the history of this ancient landscape in the Jemez Mountains. Formed by the collapse of a vast supervolcano more than a million years ago – hence the name “caldera,” or crater – Valles Caldera has been home to human beings for at least 11,000 years. The 89,000-acre former ranch, habitat for elk, cougar, deer, prairie dogs, and much more, is new in the administrative sense only; acquired by the federal government as a preserve and working ranch in 2000, access was limited until 2013. Now it has quickly become a favorite destination of cross-country skiers, hikers, anglers, equestrians, mountain bikers and nature-lovers of all kinds, and with the transfer to the National Park Service, will undoubtedly acquire an even larger following.

Waco Mammoth National Monument, Waco, Texas: Sometime in the Ice Age, a cataclysmic event – perhaps a flash flood – trapped a nursery herd of Columbian mammoths grazing along the Bosque River. Fast-forward 70,000 years, when a couple of hikers were wandering along the riverbed and spied a large bone jutting out of a ravine. They dug it out and presented it to researchers at Baylor University. The four-decade paleontological project that ensued has revealed 24 of the massive beasts and a host of other Pleistocene-era creatures, and a dig shelter displaying the remains of six mammoths in-situ – that is, in the ground where they were found. So people get to see a real dig site, just with the benefit of air-conditioning.

Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument, Nev.: Another window onto the Paleolithic era can be found just a half-hour north of the neon lights of Las Vegas. Scattered about a 22,650-acre expanse of desert is a collection of fossilized remains spanning two Ice Ages – 250,000 years, unlike the Waco Mammoth site and other fossil beds. Here lie the remains of thousands of ancient mammoths, camelops (a larger relative of today’s camel), American lions (huge cats weighing up to 1,100 pounds) and sloths the size of grizzly bears. Paleontologists have found the remains of at least three species of wild horse, the dire wolf, saber tooth cats and even llamas, as well as mammoth tusks as tall as a man.

In 1962 and 1963, during what’s known as the “Big Dig,” giant equipment, funded in part by the Las Vegas casinos, dug a series of long trenches to break loose some of the fossils, looking for evidence of human remains. None were found, and the dig was abandoned – until years later, when the site was mapped and slated for development. A citizens group under the banner Protectors of Tule Springs realized what was at stake, got organized and lobbied to protect the site.

Hiking along the trenches can yield ancient discoveries – but take only photos, as all fossils must remain in place. Come prepared to “rough it” as there are no facilities and not much signage, but if you’re interested in paleontology, geology or even the peaceful desert landscape, you’ll enjoy a trip to this rare place. Hike early to avoid the brutal heat or come in the fall, when it cools down, and check the Facebook page to see what sorts of activities the park staff is organizing in other venues. A visitors center is in the works, but until then they are pushing the idea of “virtual visits” and taking the park to the community.

Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, Mass. and R.I.: Like the Pullman National Monument, this new park highlights a much more recent period in history, the dawning of the industrial age. Unlike Pullman, however, Blackstone was born out of an existing National Heritage Corridor. That corridor is a sprawling complex of 24 towns, a river and a canal that encompasses a variety of landscapes and a window into the natural and industrial history of the region. Blackstone is by far the most developed of the new national parks, with seven visitors centers to help travelers sort out their options.

Plans foresee the National Historical Park being composed of six distinct nodes: the Slater Mill in Pawtucket, site of the first water-powered cotton spinning mill in North America; Blackstone River State Park; the mill villages of Ashton and Slatersville in Rhode Island; Whitinsville, once the nation’s largest manufacturer of textile machinery, and Hopedale in Massachusetts.

If it’s nature you’re looking for, you’ll find plenty of that, as well; the park also includes the Blackstone River and Canal and its tributaries. The Blackstone River is a playground for canoeists and kayakers, meandering 46 miles from Worcester, Mass., to Providence, R.I., flowing through cities, quaint villages, farmlands, and forests. The Blackstone River Bikeway will also eventually extend 48 miles from Worcester to Providence; currently, about 20 miles of trail are open. So don’t miss a chance to pedal – or paddle – your way through a fascinating slice of New England’s past. But you can begin exploring the history of the park and corridor without leaving your home, as the National Park Service has posted hours of interpretive videos to share some of the many stories of the region, from the underground railroad to the women’s rights movement to the Nipmuc people who originally inhabited these lands.

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