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Tree Tuesday: Meet the Junipers of Badlands

Badlands National Park is not famous for its trees.  But in the winter months, when the prairie grasses are dormant and dry, the park’s dark green junipers stand out against a landscape dominated by shades of tan.

dark green junipers against the tan formations in Badlands National Park

Junipers line a shelf on an otherwise steep slope in Badlands National Park.

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Nor Any Drop to Drink: Watching Water in Badlands National Park

Work for one day in the visitor center at Badlands National Park, and someone is sure to ask, “Why is it called that?”  The term “badlands” is a translation from the Lakota “mako sica” and the French fur traders’ “les mauvaises terres à traverser”—which is to say, “bad lands to travel across.”  The rugged terrain is part of the problem, of course, as is the harsh climate.  Winters can see the mercury plummet to well below zero, while summer temperatures can reach triple digits (in Fahrenheit, of course).  Winds over fifty miles per hour can occur at any time of year, and the starkness of the prairie affords little shelter from the gusts.

But I often think that the lack of potable water in the badlands is what really made this area earn its name.   Read more

An Afternoon at Rapid City’s Outdoor Campus

In keeping with my pledge to spend more time in nature this year, I made my first visit to the Outdoor Campus – West in Rapid City this past weekend.  Run by South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, the Outdoor Campus — West opened in 2011.  The facility features a LEED Gold building (one of only eight structures in South Dakota that have attained this level of certification from the U.S. Green Building Council) situated on 32 acres that include two small ponds, a stream, and 1.5 miles of trails.

the building at South Dakota's Outdoor Campus - West, from across the pond

The windows lining the front of the Outdoor Campus – West building look out over a pond that’s home to ducks and muskrats.  View a map.

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White-nose Syndrome Hits the Bats of Mammoth Cave National Park

Sad news today from Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park, where Superintendent Sarah Craighead confirmed the death of a northern long-eared bat from white-nose syndrome, a deadly infection that affects bats that hibernate in colonies.  It is named for the frosty white fungal growths that appear on the muzzles of sick bats.

Bat with White-nose Syndrome

Bat with white-nose syndrome. USFWS.

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Winter Dreams of Summer Travels

Ah, mid-January: time to start fantasizing about summer backpacking trips!  This year, I’m planning a long road trip with several stops for hiking and backpacking at some of the prettiest parks in the western U.S. and Canada.  Explore the map below to learn more about what promises to be a dream vacation.

Whee!  Can’t wait!

California’s Pinnacles to Become Our Newest National Park

The 112th Congress will not go down in history as having accomplished much for conservation, but one of its last acts on Sunday night was to pass legislation promoting Pinnacles National Monument in California to full national park status.

The national park system currently includes 398 different units, with all kinds of different designations.  The system includes not just national parks, but also national battlefields, national historic sites, national historical parks, wild and scenic rivers, and national memorials, among others.  As a national monument, Pinnacles is already part of the park system, but its redesignation will make it the 59th national park. Read more

Resolve to Spend More Time in Nature

It might seem strange that a park ranger is making a New Year's resolution to spend more time in nature, but my job involves a lot more sitting in my office than you might think. Yes, I do have an office of my own—but my tiny space was originally a storage closet, and doesn't have any windows. The beautiful Badlands are right outside, but I can't see them.

The isolating effect of working in my closet is stronger in winter, of course, when I go to work just after sunrise and return home after the sun has already gone down. I get very little natural light. Yesterday, it started snowing, and I didn't know about it for three hours. If a fireball were headed for the Earth and everyone looked to the skies, screaming in terror, I would still be tapping away at my workstation, oblivious to my impending doom.

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Hoar Frost and Rime Ice: What’s the Difference?

The New Year dawned cold in the badlands of South Dakota.  Temperatures in the low single digits at sunrise on January 1 warmed to a balmy 30°F by midday.  The sunny, calm conditions were perfect for my first hike of 2013.  I hadn’t walked fifty feet from the trailhead, however, before the sun glinting off the surface of the snow captured my attention.  I commonly see delicate sparkles on the snow in the morning sun, but these were bold flashes coming from platy ice crystals the size of my thumbnail.

I knelt to see better, and exclaimed in delight.  Even with my naked eye, I could see fine growth ridges running parallel to the edges of each plate, forming beautiful facets.  My first thought was surprise that such big, perfectly hexagonal snowflakes could have persisted since the last snowfall, several days ago.  But then I realized that the ice crystals weren’t old snowflakes at all: they were a beautiful example of surface hoar. Read more

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