Seal takeovers, downed trees: Parks clean up post-shutdown
By BRADY McCOMBS and FELICIA FONSECA
Sunday, February 3
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — National park visitors cut new trails in sensitive soil. They pried open gates while no one was watching. They found bathrooms locked, so they went outside. One off-roader even mowed down an iconic twisted-limbed Joshua tree in California.
During the 35-day government shutdown, some visitors at parks and other protected areas nationwide left behind messes that National Park Service officials are scrambling to clean up as they brace for the possibility of another closure ahead of the busy Presidents Day weekend this month.
Conservationists warn that damage to sensitive lands could take decades to recover. National parks already faced an estimated $12 billion maintenance backlog that now has grown.
Many parks went unstaffed during the shutdown, while others had skeleton crews with local governments and nonprofits contributing money and volunteers.
National Park Service spokesman Mike Litterst in Washington, D.C., declined to provide a full accounting of the damage at more than 400 locations, saying it was isolated and most visitors took good care of the land.
But interviews with park officials and nonprofits that help keep parks running reveal a toll from people and winter storms when workers could not make fixes quickly.
President Donald Trump has said another shutdown could start Feb. 15 if he and Democratic leaders can’t agree on funding for a U.S.-Mexico border wall, compounding pressure on the park service to catch up on repairs.
Hiring seasonal workers who typically start in the spring as rangers, fee collectors and hiking guides also has been delayed.
“We’re kind of ready to just have a bit more stability,” said Angie Richman, a spokeswoman at Arches National Park in Utah.
A colony of elephant seals took over a Northern California beach in Point Reyes National Seashore without workers to discourage the animals from congregating in the popular tourist area. Spokesman John Dell’Osso said rangers and volunteers will lead visitors on walks to see roughly 50 adult seals and 43 pups.
The Grand Canyon postponed a highly competitive lottery that provides permits for self-guided rafting trips on the Colorado River in 2020 because staff has to catch up on other work. Matt Baldwin with the river permits office said the lottery is rescheduled for Feb. 16, which could change with another shutdown. That also could lead the park to miss out on its centennial celebration Feb. 26.
At Southern California’s Joshua Tree National Park, Superintendent David Smith said officials still were assessing damage Friday but at least one signature tree died when an off-road vehicle ran it over during the shutdown. It’s not the same toppled tree from a picture distributed by the park service early in the shutdown that was used widely to illustrate the perils of understaffed or closed parks.
Park spokesman Jeremy Barnum said rangers who discovered the tree initially thought vandals destroyed it during the shutdown but that botanists later determined it fell earlier. He said the park “apologizes for any confusion this initial report may have caused.”
Smith said several other Joshua trees that can live hundreds of years were damaged, including one that was spray-painted, but the park has yet to determine the exact number and when it happened. Someone also cut down a juniper tree and off-road vehicles dug extensive wheel marks into the delicate desert soil, Smith said.
Workers at Death Valley National Park in California cleaned up 1,655 clumps of toilet paper and 429 piles of human waste as the shutdown hit during one of the busiest times of year, a park statement said Friday.
Superintendent Mike Reynolds also said that “people tried to do the right thing by leaving trash next to full dumpsters, but wind and animals dispersed it. The park’s resources, visitors and wildlife all paid the price.”
Workers have to rake and replant vegetation to repair ruts from off-road vehicles, delaying other work in the 3.4 million-acre park. Staffers spent a combined 1,500 hours this week documenting the damage, cleaning and making repairs, Reynolds said, calling the overall effects “disturbing.”
“It became pretty depressing the kinds of things people will do when they are unsupervised,” said David Blacker, executive director of the Death Valley Natural History Association.
Visitors at Arches in Utah left waste outside a restroom, stomped out five trails in a permit-only area that was shut down and damaged an entrance gate to allow vehicles to drive on snow-covered roads when the park was closed after a storm, Richman said.
People in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park drove around locked gates and through meadows, spokeswoman Kyle Patterson said.
At Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddling the North Carolina-Tennessee line, visitors cut locks on some gates to closed roads and stole about $5,000 in maintenance tools, spokeswoman Dana Soehn said.
Officials at Zion National Park in Utah, Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado and Olympic National Park in Washington were fixing trails, roads and campgrounds damaged from winter storms. Mesa Verde wasn’t set to open until Monday, and some areas were still closed at Zion and Olympic.
Campgrounds, visitors centers and trails that seasonal workers help prepare could face delayed openings, and families planning spring break or summer vacations might think twice about visiting if they don’t think national parks are safe or fully staffed, said Phil Francis, chairman of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks.
“There are a lot of impacts that will be felt in the future that aren’t being felt or even talked about now,” he said.
Meanwhile, the prospect of another shutdown looms.
Elizabeth Jackson, a spokeswoman for Guadalupe Mountains National Park on the Texas-New Mexico border, noted the stress on workers.
“It’s a way of life if you’re a federal employee,” Jackson said. “Not to be glib, but it’s something we face every year.”
Fonseca reported from Flagstaff, Arizona. Associated Press writers Ellen Knickmeyer in Washington, D.C.; David Warren in Dallas; Matt Volz in Helena, Montana; and Dan Elliott in Denver contributed to this story.
Northwest measles outbreak revives debate over vaccine laws
By GILLIAN FLACCUS
Saturday, February 2
VANCOUVER, Wash. (AP) — A measles outbreak near Portland, Oregon, has revived a bitter debate over so-called “philosophical” exemptions to childhood vaccinations as public health officials across the Pacific Northwest scramble to limit the fallout.
At least 44 people in Washington and Oregon have fallen ill in recent weeks with the extraordinarily contagious virus, which was eradicated in the U.S. in 2000 as a result of immunization but arrives periodically with overseas travelers. More than a half-dozen more cases are suspected, and people who were exposed to the disease traveled to Hawaii and Bend, Oregon, raising the possibility of more diagnoses in the unvaccinated.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee last week declared a state of emergency because of the outbreak.
“I would hope that this ends soon, but this could go on for weeks, if not months,” said Dr. Alan Melnick, public health director in Clark County, Washington, just north of Portland. The county has had most of the diagnosed cases so far. “
Of the confirmed cases, 37 are people who were not immunized. Most of the confirmed cases have been children under 10. Authorities said Friday one case was a person who had received one dose of the measles vaccine.
“The measles vaccine isn’t perfect, but one dose is 93 percent effective at preventing illness,” Melnick said. “The recommended two doses of the measles vaccine provide even greater protection – 97 percent.”
The outbreak has lawmakers in Washington state revisiting non-medical exemptions that allow children to attend school without vaccinations if their parents or guardians express a personal objection. Liberal-leaning Oregon and Washington have some of the nation’s highest statewide vaccine exemption rates, driven in part by low vaccination levels in scattered communities and at some private and alternative schools.
Four percent of Washington secondary school students have non-medical vaccine exemptions. In Oregon, which has a similar law, 7.5 percent of kindergarteners in 2018 were missing shots for non-medical reasons.
Washington and Oregon are among 17 states that allow some type of non-medical exemption for vaccines for “personal, moral or other beliefs,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Numerous studies have shown vaccines do not cause autism — a common reason cited by those who don’t want their kids immunized. Those opposed to certain vaccines also object to an outside authority mandating what they put in their children’s bodies, and some have concerns about the combination of the measles vaccine with the mumps and rubella immunizations, which is how it’s routinely given.
A measure introduced by Republican Rep. Paul Harris of Vancouver, Washington — the epicenter of the current outbreak — would remove the personal exemption specifically for the combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, or MMR. It’s scheduled for a public hearing in Olympia on Feb. 8.
Democratic Rep. Monica Stonier of Vancouver, a co-signer on the bill, said she would prefer an even broader proposal, but “right now we’re looking at what we can get moved.” Previous attempts have failed.
“We’re trying to respond to a very specific concern here and recognize that there may be broader concerns we can consider down the road,” Stonier said.
Oregon has the nation’s highest statewide vaccine exemption rates, and some communities have rates that are even higher. Washington’s exemption rate, although lower, is also high when compared with other states. Nationwide, the median exemption rate for at least one vaccine for children entering kindergarten in the 2017-2018 year was just over 2 percent.
Oregon state Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, a Democrat and family physician, dropped an attempt to revoke the state’s non-medical exemption in 2015 after virulent opposition. The Legislature now requires parents to either watch an educational video or talk to a doctor before claiming the exemption.
In Washington state, legislation that would have removed the personal or philosophical belief allowance never made it to the House floor for a vote in 2015 amid stiff opposition.
The National Vaccine Information Center, which opposes mandatory vaccination laws, said it opposed that bill and the current one. Another anti-vaccination group, Informed Choice Washington, had its members at the statehouse on Thursday trying to dissuade lawmakers.
“People are feeling extremely oppressed and feeling like they can’t make an educated decision,” said Barbara Loe Fisher, co-founder and president of the group. She said the legislation would “bring a hammer down and threaten people instead of allowing them to make informed decisions.”
California is one of the few states that stripped away personal belief vaccine exemptions for children in both public and private schools. The law passed in 2015 after a measles outbreak at Disneyland sickened 147 people and spread across the U.S. and into Canada. It occurred despite an earlier law that required parents to talk to a doctor to opt out of vaccines. Vermont also abandoned its personal exemption in 2015.
California state Sen. Richard Pan, a pediatrician who sponsored his state’s bill, said he got death threats over it and had anti-vaccination advocates jam his phone lines and harass him on social media.
The overall vaccination rate for children entering kindergarten in California rose to 95 percent in the two years after the law passed. Parents who don’t want to immunize their children can homeschool or enroll their children in independent study at the local public school.
Measles is still a big problem in other parts of the world, and travelers infected abroad can bring back the virus, causing periodic outbreaks.
Last year, there were 17 outbreaks and about 350 cases in the United States. Before mass vaccination, 400 to 500 people in the U.S. died of the measles every year. Serious complications include brain swelling that can cause blindness or deafness and pneumonia.
Early symptoms include a fever, runny nose and malaise, followed by a rash that starts around the head and moves down the body. Patients are contagious four days before and four days after getting the rash.
Nine out of 10 unvaccinated people who are exposed will get the disease. Someone who has no immunity can get sick up to three weeks after they have been exposed to the virus.
Associated Press writer Rachel La Corte in Olympia contributed to this report.
Follow Gillian Flaccus on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/gflaccus
Human toll of cold: more than 2 dozen dead, hundreds hurt
By STEVE KARNOWSKI and TAMMY WEBBER
Sunday, February 3
CHICAGO (AP) — The dangerous cold and heavy snow that hobbled the northern U.S. this week has retreated, but not before exacting a human toll: more than two dozen weather-related deaths in eight states and hundreds of injuries, including frostbite, broken bones, heart attacks and carbon monoxide poisoning.
In Illinois alone, hospitals reported more than 220 cases of frostbite and hypothermia since Tuesday, when the polar vortex moved in and overnight temperatures plunged to minus 30 (minus 34 Celsius) or lower — with wind chills of minus 50 (minus 45 Celsius) or worse in some areas.
Hennepin Healthcare in Minneapolis normally sees around 30 frostbite patients in an entire winter. It admitted 18 in the past week, spokeswoman Christine Hill said Friday.
“I definitely saw more frostbite than I’ve ever seen in my entire career just in the last three days,” said Dr. Andrea Rowland-Fischer, an emergency department physician at Hennepin Healthcare.
Most of those patients, she said, had underlying problems that made it difficult for them to take care of themselves: the developmentally delayed, the mentally ill, the very young and the very old. They also included people with injuries related to drugs and alcohol — people who passed out or did not realize they were cold or injured.
“It’s heartbreaking when there are people who can’t take care of themselves and get exposed, just because they either escape from the care that they’re being given or because they’re not being supervised.”
Others got frostbite on their way to work after being exposed to the cold for a short time, often on their hands, feet, ears and face. That included people whose cars would not start or who got stuck outside for other reasons, as well as those who just did not think they could get frostbitten so quickly and went outside without gloves or other protective gear.
Several required “maximal treatment,” admission to the hospital’s burn unit for therapies that include drugs to restore circulation to try to avoid amputations. Some of them will probably still require amputations, a decision usually made by burn doctors four to 10 days after the injury.
Many people decided to stay home even when they were sick to avoid slippery roads and subzero temperatures. In western Michigan, a health care system’s online service saw a major spike this week.
More than 400 people over four days used Spectrum Health’s MedNow to see a nurse practitioner or a physician’s assistant about non-emergency issues, such as aches, rashes, cold and flu, said Joe Brennan, MedNow senior director. Most used an app on their phone. The usual four-day volume is 250.
“We had soreness-and-sickness calls from people who were shoveling 2 ½ feet of snow,” Brennan said. “Instead of going to urgent care or an emergency department, they had an option to stay at home.”
Another danger was from carbon monoxide. A family of nine in Wheeling, Illinois, about 30 miles northwest of Chicago, was taken to local hospitals after heating their home with a charcoal grill. In Rockford, Illinois, four people were treated because they had warmed up cars in a closed garage or because a furnace vent became blocked by ice and snow.
The snow that accompanied the cold also caused problems.
In Raymond, New Hampshire, the driver of a state Department of Transportation vehicle was struck in the head Thursday after ice and snow flew off a truck ahead and broke through the windshield. The driver was hospitalized with a laceration to the head and other possible injuries.
In just a two-day period, Tuesday and Wednesday, Mercyhealth in Rockford treated 15 people for broken bones from falling on the ice, 10 people who were in car crashes caused by snow and eight people who complained of chest pain or shortness of breath from shoveling snow, hospital officials said.
Rockford set a new record low of minus 31 degrees Thursday, but the hospital only treated two cases of frostbite, emergency physician Dr. John Pakiela said.
“It was Antarctica there for a few days … but I think people listened to professional advice and heeded warnings,” about staying indoors or bundling up, he said.
By Friday, the deep freeze had mostly abated, with temperatures climbing as high as the low 20s (minus 5 or 6 Celsius) in Minneapolis and Chicago. In western North Dakota, the temperature in Dickinson climbed above freezing (0 Celsius) by midmorning — a jump of nearly 60 degrees compared with Tuesday’s low of minus 17 degrees (minus 27 Celsius).
The weather was thought to be a factor in at least 27 deaths, including a 90-year-old Michigan woman who died of hypothermia after locking herself out of her home while feeding birds — one of at least nine people who were found outdoors. A motorist also died during a snowstorm Friday after striking a salt truck that had pulled off the side of Interstate 70 in central Indiana. Others died after freezing outdoors or in unheated homes or while shoveling snow.
Karnowski reported from St. Paul, Minnesota. Associated Press writers Kathy McCormack in Concord, New Hampshire; Blake Nicholson in Bismarck, North Dakota; and Ed White in Detroit also contributed to this story.
Review: Jane Harper writes engrossing 3rd novel
By OLINE H. COGDILL
Monday, February 4
“The Lost Man” (Flatiron Books), by Jane Harper
The three Bright brothers, bonded by blood, history and the vagaries of the Australian outback, are the true lost men of Jane Harper’s engrossing third novel, “The Lost Man.”
“The Lost Man” works as a story about families and also as a tale about surviving in the outback, a “land of extremes where people were either completely fine or they were not.” Certain rules “written in blood” guide life in the Queensland part of Australian — break one and the outback is not just unforgiving, it can be fatal. Here it’s a hardscrabble life, the nearest neighbor may be a three-hour drive away, death from dehydration is a reality and checking in regularly with others is vital.
Oldest brother Nathan Bright is isolated even more than the norm, banished from the town of Balamara for breaking one of those Australian rules and is semi-estranged from his family. He spends his solitary life tending a dying ranch, waiting for those infrequent visits from his teenage son, Xander. He and youngest brother, Bub, are brought together when the body of middle brother, Cam, is found near the landmark grave of an old stockman, an area icon wrapped up in legend. Cam’s well-stocked vehicle, filled with food and water as it should be, is found miles away from his body. How Cam, so well-seasoned in the ways of Australia, ended up dead forms the crux of “The Lost Man.”
Cam’s death forces Nathan to re-examine his life and how he has thrown himself into the life of a loner. Cam seemed to have it all — an intelligent wife, two daughters and a prosperous farm. He was well liked in ways that Nathan, and to an extent Bub, never could be. But Cam had a dark side that few knew about, as evidenced as secrets begin to spill out.
Solid, believable characters fill “The Lost Man.” But equally important is the exploration of the outback where “too much space” gives way to resentments. Helicopters are used to round up cattle and long-range radios are a necessity in this “perfect sea of nothingness. If someone was looking for oblivion, that was the place to find it.”
Harper’s “The Lost Man” is storytelling at its finest.