Newspaper Chides Park Over Tragedy

March 25, 2013 by · Comments Off on Newspaper Chides Park Over Tragedy 

Editor’s Note: The following editorial appeared in the Record Searchlight, Redding, Calif.

When the family of 9-year-old Tommy Botell sued the National Park Service after a rock wall collapsed and killed the Red Bluff boy on the Lassen Peak Trail in 2009, it provoked widespread skepticism.

For all the terrible heartbreak, after all, a wilderness trail up the side of a volcano holds inherent dangers. A wrongful-death suit against the government struck the most cynical as an attempt to cash in on tragedy.

But as the Botell family’s attorneys have peeled back the layers of misconduct at Lassen Volcanic National Park, it’s plain how their pain at the loss of their son was compounded by entirely justified outrage at park officials’ dismissal of a known hazard before Tommy’s death and, especially, the cover-up afterward.

This isn’t just lawyerly bombast or the pained family’s accusations. A federal magistrate’s findings released last week detail an appalling web of wrongdoing and recommended that the U.S. District Court judge ultimately overseeing the case impose sanctions and find the park negligent in Tommy’s death.

Lassen officials destroyed evidence — both the remains of the wall itself and documents whose disappearance the magistrate called “highly suspicious” though not proven legally relevant to the case. (Of course, it’s hard to prove anything about what shredded documents said — that’s the point.)

They disregarded National Park Service policy requiring that, after a death, the relevant area be secured pending a full investigation, and that the agency convene a Board of Inquiry.

They interfered with both an official National Park Service investigation and the inquiries of the Botells’ private attorney.

And contradictions in Superintendent Darlene Koontz’s testimony, the magistrate found, “would seem to show that Koontz lied under penalty of perjury” about the role she might have played in stalling an internal National Park Service probe.

Add it up, and you don’t see a picture of park leaders forthrightly facing a problem and working to ensure, to the best of their ability, that it doesn’t happen again (though, in fairness, the multi-year Peak Trail overhaul’s planning was complete the next winter, and construction began in 2010). Instead, it’s a rush to cover their backsides.

And the ruling and other court papers paint a clear picture of the reason: The hazards of the decades-old rock walls on the Peak Trail had been documented and studied for some time. Park officials knew they had a problem, and they’d even begun working on plans to fix it. They didn’t act fast enough, though, and the result was a 9-year-old hiker’s death.

That’s the most horrifying possible outcome. And yet the existence of old walls and the maintenance backlog are not faults that necessarily belong on Lassen managers’ shoulders.

The National Park Service’s conservation mission makes it subject to some of the strictest federal environmental protections anywhere. It takes exhaustive study before anyone can turn a shovelful of dirt. And the parks system nationally faces a huge backlog of maintenance — roughly $10 billion in deferred upkeep.

Combine a cumbersome-by-design bureaucracy with chronically short funding, and delay will become an agency’s default mode. And that means, all but inevitably, some known hazards will go unaddressed.

The national parks are treasures set aside for all time and are managed under a public microscope. Even so, their stewards still need the authority to make reasonably prompt decisions, especially when the public’s safety is involved, without having their actions tied up in court. The parks also need budgets adequate to carry out their mission and serve the public.

But before any of that would do a lick of good, the parks need people with integrity at the top. After reading last week’s ruling, it’s hard to see how anyone would think that’s the case at Lassen.


2 Calif. Congressmen Blast Feds for Forest Fire

October 25, 2012 by · Comments Off on 2 Calif. Congressmen Blast Feds for Forest Fire 

A view of the Reading Fire on Aug. 7, 2012. Published in Wildfire Today. Credit: Lassen NPS

Two California congressmen blasted the National Park Service on Wednesday (Oct. 24) for letting a wildfire burn despite extreme conditions last summer, a decision that conflicted with the practices of other state and federal agencies, the San Jose Mercury News reported.

U.S. Reps. Wally Herger and Tom McClintock, both Republicans from Northern California, criticized Lassen Volcanic National Park officials for decisions that allowed the Reading Fire to eventually erupt into an inferno that scorched more than 42 square miles and cost $15 million to suppress.

It destroyed private property, hurt the region’s logging industry and devastated prime tourism destinations in an area known for its remote beauty.

Herger said the officials responsible for allowing the fire to burn during “a terrible fire season” should be removed and changes made to the national policy that uses managed wildfires as a tool to clear out forests and improve wildlife habitat.

McClintock used the hearing to advocate for a resumption of widespread logging. He said clear-cutting can have the same effect as fires that leave behind a “moonscape” of devastation, though he later said he is not advocating clear-cutting. Massive wildfires cause air pollution, environmental damage and threaten people and wildlife, McClintock said.

“Any squirrel fleeing a fire knows this,” he said, “which leads me to the unflattering but inescapable conclusion that today our forest management policy is in the hands of people who lack the simple common sense that God gave a squirrel.”

McClintock said the current policy is that “we have to destroy the forest in order to save it,” a notion that he described as “New Age nonsense.”

Bill Kaage, the park service’s Wildland Fire Branch chief, generally defended the decisions but said park officials intend to learn from the fire. Park officials should have done a better job of coordinating with other federal, state and local agencies and area residents, he acknowledged, and other lessons may come from an internal review due to be completed next month.

Though the fire jumped the park’s boundary and blazed out of control, no structures were damaged and there was just one minor injury, said Kaage, the only park official to testify.

“Fire is a very high-risk, high consequence endeavor,” he said. “With that high risk, there are successful outcomes and outcomes that are less than successful.”

Park Service officials’ decision conflicted with the U.S. Forest Service’s practice last summer of quickly putting out fires because of extraordinarily dry conditions across the West, testified Joe Millar, the agency’s Fire and Aviation Management director for the region that covers California. The two federal agencies differ over their approaches to fighting wildfires and have had previous conflicts over the matter throughout the West.

Andy McMurry, deputy director for fire protection for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the decision to treat the lightning-caused fire as a timber management tool came “at an inopportune time” and ran counter to his agency’s policy of quickly stamping out every fire before it could spread.

Kaage said park officials followed the same federal wildfire policy used by the Forest Service and other federal agencies and stuck to their own fire management plan when they decided to monitor what began as a remote, low level, half-acre fire. The only difference is that the Forest Service makes fire management decisions at the regional level, while the Parks Service leaves those decisions to local officials, he said in supporting that local control.

Similar managed fires burned uneventfully this summer in Yosemite and Rocky Mountain national parks, Kaage said, and even seemingly devastated areas recover in time from fires that are a natural and inescapable part of the Western landscape.

The fire jumped its perimeter a week after it began. At one point it threatened nearly 150 homes and 50 commercial properties.

It burned through part of the Pacific Crest Trail north of Lower Twin Lake, much of the popular 10-mile Twin Lakes Loop Trail, and the less heavily used Nobles Emigrant Trail, said Lassen park spokeswoman Karen Haner. However, none of the park’s popular hydrothermal areas were affected.

Wednesday’s hearing was requested by angry Shasta County supervisors.

The park is surrounded by generally poor communities that used to rely on the timber industry but now survive on the brief summer tourist season, testified Pam Giacomini, a business owner who has been elected to the Shasta County Board of Supervisors. The fire “cost them dearly,” she said, suggesting that park officials be required to compensate local businesses for their economic losses.

Those communities saw no economic benefit from the fire but would from a resurgent timber industry, said Giacomini and others.


Northern California Campgrounds Expect Big Crowds

June 29, 2012 by · Comments Off on Northern California Campgrounds Expect Big Crowds 

Lassen Peak reflected in Manzanita Lake

With the Fourth of July landing on Wednesday, public campgrounds in Northern California are bracing for back-to-back busy weekends, The Redding Record Searchlight reported.

“It’s kind of an interesting holiday, with it falling in the middle of the week, we don’t know what to expect early on,” Ryan McKelvey, Lassen Volcanic National Park’s camping fee manager, said Thursday. “Are people coming the first weekend? The second weekend? Will we get many visitors in the middle of the week?”

Indications suggest Lassen and other areas will be bustling with campers this weekend and through the holiday.

“Looking at our reservations, this weekend will be the busier of the two,” McKelvey said. “A lot of the (campgrounds) are full this weekend and even through the week.”

Campers with reservations have claimed all sites for this weekend at McArthur-Burney Falls State Park near Burney and Oak Bottom Campground at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, workers said.

“We are sold out except for maybe six sites that are available for Monday,” Brett Mizeur, supervising ranger at Burney Falls, said Wednesday. Mizeur, however, expected those sites to be spoken for soon.

Mizeur encouraged people coming up for just the day to visit the falls in morning or early evening to help traffic flow, especially on the weekends and on July Fourth.

“Sometimes we have had to close the park between noon and 4 p.m. to further entry because there is no parking,” Mizeur said.

AAA projects more than 4.8 million Californians will travel for the holiday, the most since 2003 and a 5 percent increase over 2011.

Most of those surveyed said they will start their holiday today.

The recent drop in gas prices has helped. The average for a gallon of unleaded gasoline in California on Thursday was $3.80, nearly 50 cents lower than the $4.28 price a month ago, AAA said.

Nationally, AAA forecasts just over 42 million people will travel 50 miles or more during the holiday, a 5 percent increase over last year.

For Lassen Park, conditions will be much different from a year ago.

For starters, the road through the park is open, marking the first time it has been clear of snow for the holiday since 2009. The park road opened June 1 this year.

Every campground in Lassen also is open this year. Heavy snow last year kept popular campgrounds like Summit Lake North and Summit Lake South closed.

“It’s just exciting,” park spokeswoman Karen Haner said. “It’s going to be a nice week. We hope people can take the time off for it.”

The trail up Lassen Peak and the Bumpass Hell Trail will be open, but Haner advised hikers to dress appropriately because there are still spots of snow on both trails.


20 New Cabins Ready at Lassen Volcanic Nat. Park

January 21, 2011 by · Comments Off on 20 New Cabins Ready at Lassen Volcanic Nat. Park 

One of the 20 new cabins at Lake Manzanita campground, Lassen Volcanic National Park. Photo courtesy of park website.

Cabins have returned to Manzanita Lake campground in Northern California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park.

The 20 rentals will be available Memorial Day through Columbus Day. Reservations opened this week at, the Redding Record Searchlight reported.

The prefabricated, wooden cabins, built by Cavco Industries Inc., were rolled onto a long-closed loop of the campground last summer. Workers spent the snow-free months improving the site and adding fire rings, picnic tables and bear-proof food lockers so the cabins would be ready for their debut this summer.

The cabins bring back a way to take in Lassen’s outdoor attractions from indoors. Manzanita Lake’s decades-old, well-loved cabins closed in 1974 after a U.S. Geological Survey report warned that they could be at risk from sudden rockslides from Chaos Crags. The danger was downgraded by scientists in the late 1980s, but by then the cabins had been demolished.

Lassen officials hope the new cabins draw more people to the park. National parks that lack the big-name recognition of places like Yellowstone and Yosemite have seen a decline in visitors the last several years, said John Poimiroo, spokesman for California Guest Services, which will manage the cabins. Offering cabins is a way for Lassen to appeal to people who don’t want a traditional camping experience, he said.

“There’s something about being in a cabin,” Poimiroo said. “It feels like your own little home in the woods.”

The cabins should draw new visitors to the park and could get Lassen regulars to stay longer.

The cabins come in three configurations — one-bedroom, two-bedroom and bunkhouse. Costs are $57 or $81 per night, which includes taxes and reservation fees.

Poimiroo expects the cabins to draw young families who might be interested in camping, but who don’t own camping equipment. The cabins also could be attractive to seasoned campers who no longer want to pitch a tent, he said.

The cabins are cozy, not cushy. Unlike the previous Manzanita Lake cabins, which were constructed on site and included bathrooms, the new cabins don’t have bathrooms or kitchens. Restrooms are located nearby and each site has an outdoor fire ring, picnic table and food storage locker.

Poimiroo said “camper packages” with sleeping bags, cookstove, firewood, cooler, ice, pots and pans and other items can be rented for $100 to $275.

Lassen spent $520,000 on the cabins and site work. Most of that money came from the fees visitors pay to enter the park or camp.

If there’s demand, 20 more cabins could be added. There’s also the option of stretching the summer cabin season into winter. Each cabin has a lantern and propane heater.

Poimiroo predicts the cabins will be a hit.

People are very interested in staying in these, as Lassen employees got many questions last summer about when the cabins would be available.

“I think they are going to be extremely popular,” Poimiroo said. “People like the cabin experience. It’s something that creates great memories for children.”