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US Endangered Travel Destinations

Plan your trips now, while you still can: 10 endangered vacation destinations

Dan Shapley  Apr 09, 2010

You've heard of the Life List -- the vacation spots you want to see before you die. This is a little different. These are top U.S. destinations you might want to see before they die. "They" being the destinations themselves. Each of these vacation ideas is located in a landscape that is threatened in some way -- whether by global warming, mining, extreme weather or by another environmental hazard.

While inclusion on this list isn't an indication that these sites are in imminent danger of disappearing, the fact that this list seems plausible is a distinctly 21st Century phenomenon. After all, destinations are supposed to be permanent, even though our lives are not -- that's what makes the Wonders of the World so mysterious and attractive. It's not just their beauty and scale, but their endurance.

In an era when our expanding population, and our expanding pollution keep expanding the human influence on the Earth, not all destinations are so permanent as they once seemed. (Even the Sphinx is crumbling, thanks in part to acid rain.) So in this year when gas prices are rising (again), jobs are scarce and budgets are tight, it may yet still be the time to take to the road and see one of these endangered U.S. destinations. You may have another chance, but your kids or their kids may not. (Better pack a camera.)

Photographing Glaciers in Glacier National Park

What would the Grand Canyon be without a canyon? Something like Glacier National Park would be without its glaciers. But by 2030, that's exactly the landscape that might greet visitors, as the climate warms. (In fact, two more glaciers disappeared in the last year!)

Already, some of the most famous glaciers in the Montana park have shrunk by more than half, and only 17% of the glaciers found there in 1850 remain today (26 of 150). While the valleys below have warmed about 2 degrees in the last century, the peaks of Glacier National Park have warmed about 2 degrees every year for 15 years.

Glaciers are things of beauty and awe: the imprint of time and the Earth's physical processes represented in massive hulk of ice on the landscape. The loss of glaciers -- not just in U.S. national parks, but worldwide is one of the most visual signs of global warming. Sure, the melting of a glacier is still slow in human years, but the change in Glacier National Park is real and any child born today should see the park before he or she hits 20 -- because the glaciers might well be gone by then.

Viewing Austin's Congress Avenue Bridge Bat Colony

One of the most unlikely tourist destinations in the country, Austin's Congress Avenue Bridge bats nevertheless draw as many as 100,000 tourists every year. The bats themselves don't seem particularly vulnerable: Every evening through the summer, as many as 1.5 million Mexican free-tail bats emerge from their colony under the bridge and start eating moths and other insects. It's the largest urban bat colony in the world.

And, indeed, there aren't any well-publicized threats to this colony of bats. What there is, is a mysterious disease that has begun creeping across the U.S. and which has the potential to decimate bat populations across the continent. Identified first in New York caves in February 2007, the malady is known as white nose syndrome because its most recognizable symptom is a ring of white fungus on the noses of the bats found dead by the hundreds in caves where they hibernate through the winter. Scientists have since watched the disease infect caves throughout the Northeast and spread to at least nine states.

Bats are scary, gargoyle-like creatures, sure. But they eat bugs that we don't like, and -- just ask the tourism bureau in Austin, or farmers who rely on their natural pest-control abilities, or those who find strange beauty in their faces, wings and habits -- bats are worth keeping around. They remind us that losing any one piece of an ecosystem can lead to a cascade of unintended, and unwelcome changes.

At this point, scientists haven't been able to define the disease fully, identify its origins or devise any remedies. Will it reach the caves of the Southwestern U.S., Mexico and South America, where Mexican free-tail bats spend the winter? Who knows -- but you might want to see that awe-inspiring wildlife display in Austin now, just to make sure.

Whatever It Is That Happens in Vegas

What could possibly happen to Vegas (that hasn't already happened in Vegas)? This one might be a little overly apocalyptic for some, but step back for a minute and you'll remember that Las Vegas is built smack in the middle of the desert. It exists, not only to gleefully champion sin, but also because the Colorado River has been dammed, diverted and directed to flow into Lake Mead and other reservoirs, so that the dry Southwest can bloom beyond its natural limits.

But for how long? The flow of the Colorado River, one of the continent's mightiest, is already strained, the remnants of its abundant water flow disputed across the western U.S. Add a sprawling population, demanding drinking water and green lawns and farm-fresh produce, and the dwindling snowpack that feeds the river -- thanks to global warming -- and Las Vegas could face serious strains soon. By 2021, according to one study of Lake Mead, which supplies 90% of the city's drinking water.

The larger issue is how a growing population faces the limits of its environment. In the Southwest, engineering has been the solution -- dams, irrigation ditches and casinos being the most obvious examples of our dominance over an inhospitable landscape. Into the future, as global warming stresses our already thinly stretched resources, will it make sense to grow lush green lawns in the middle of the desert?

Vegas being what it is, the loss of water might not be a death knell. There is, after all, alcohol. Might be better to plan your visit before 2021 all the same.

Paddling the Florida Everglades

Everglades National Park is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States — a vast and slow-moving river channeled through tufts of dry land. It's teeming with wildlife, from the abundant and ferocious (alligators and crocodiles) to the scarce and ferocious (the panther) and every creature on down the food chain. Paddling a canoe through the Everglades is a rare experience.

Rare indeed. The Everglades face a Goldilocks-type question: Will there be too little water, too much ... or just the right amount? Too little and the Everglades dry up. Too much and it gets swallowed by the sea. Either way, it won’t offer the same wilderness canoe experience it does today.

For more than a century, too little water has been the problem, as agriculture and suburban sprawl have eaten into the swamp, draining and diverting the natural water flow. With the water has gone 90% of some populations of wading birds.

Water levels are rising, thanks to a 35-year preservation plan and billions of dollars in planned spending. But global warming could cause sea-level rise to swamp the swamp; the highest point in Everglades National Park is just eight feet above sea level, and the latest projections suggest there will be more than enough new sea water to cover that land in the next 100 years or so. The Everglades could be swallowed by the sea.

Bottom line: Better not put off that once-in-a-lifetime trip to this one-of-a-kind destination.

Wine Tasting in Napa Valley

What could be better than a drive through the wine country of Napa Valley? A drive with a designated driver, I guess.

But what would the renowned valley be without its vineyards? It's a question that California might have to grapple with. Good wine, as vintners and buffs know, is the result of the right variables -- soil and climate chief among them. You may have heard, there's something amiss in our climate. Some scientists have projected that California's heralded wine-growing regions today will be ill-suited to growing premium grapes by the end of this century. As the San Francisco Chronicle suggested, now's the time to cellar wine -- or take that wine-tasting trip.

As bad as losing vineyards sounds, the situation may be even worse: President Obama's Energy Secretary, Stephen Chu, said California's "salad bowl" -- which provides most U.S. vegetables -- could turn into a dust bowl by the end of the century, as global warming takes its toll.

So go to California for wine, now. Your children's children (when they reach drinking age) may travel to New York for world-class wines instead.

A Scenic Drive Through Appalachia

While President Obama initially made moves to slow down or reverse his predecessor's support for the destructive mining practice evocatively known as mountaintop removal, the Obama Environmental Protection Agency has recently approved more than 90% of the permits under its review -- leaving a vast swath of Appalachia vulnerable to the high altitude scarring and stream-choking waste disposal associated with mountaintop removal mines.

Scenic byways criss-cross the region, from Pennsylvania, through its heart in West Virginia, to Georgia. Not all will remain so scenic, however, as the landscape is scoured to remove rich coal seams, the debris left to fill mountain stream valleys. The rafting, kayaking, trout fishing and hiking will suffer in some places, too.

The larger issue here, of course, is how the U.S. will produce energy. If we continue to rely on coal -- "clean coal" refers only to what happens after it's burned, not what happens as it's mined -- we'll see more of this type of destruction, one way or another. If we move to clean, renewable sources of energy, we won't.

Already, 470 mines have obliterated Appalachian peaks, according to Environmental groups have not stopped the fight to prevent new mountaintop removal mines, but the EPA under Obama has already approved at least 42 of 48 permits it has reviewed. Get in the car now, and see this majestic, wild region -- known as the "most biologically diverse temperate region anywhere on Earth," according to the authors of Disappearing Destinations: 37 Places in Peril and What can be Done to Help Save Them:

"Around each curve here the vegetation alone astounds, from boreal, cove, pine-oak and hardwood forests -- blooming dogwood, tulip poplar and redbud are among the area's beauty queens -- to heath and grassy balds. Some 2,000 species of Appalachian flora have been identified, 200 of which are said to be native and entirely confined to this complex ecohub. Its multihued tangles of unkempt rhododendron, mountain laurel and azalea are near mythical, its ginseng and morel mushrooms coveted worldwide."

There's that old line about mountains: I climbed it because it was there. The 21st century post-coal-mining version of that old adage might be closer to: It wasn't there, so I didn't climb it.

A Tour of Galveston, Texas

Galveston, Texas, situated on a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico is a resort location -- complete with docks filled with cruise boats, hotels and shopping, 32 miles of beaches, theaters, gardens, an aquarium and historic architecture. Galveston's perilous relationship with the environment was tested in 1900, when a massive hurricane struck, nearly ending the community's hold on the island. Its will was tested again in 2008, when the massive Hurricane Ike swept through, killing a dozen people in Galveston (among the 100-plus it killed throughout the U.S. Gulf Coast and Caribbean), causing nearly $20 billion in damage to U.S. property, and closing Galveston's port for days afterward. No hurricane will ever be named Ike again, in deference to the storm's toll.

Hurricane damage has, in general, become more and more costly -- in lives and treasure -- as the U.S. population migrates to beautiful beach locations that happen also to be in the path of hurricanes. The wild card is global warming, which may or may not be increasing the frequency and/or intensity of tropical storms: the scientific verdict on that one is still out. (Sea-level rise in Galveston and other barrier islands will make any storms more destructive.)

Galveston endures and may endure successive hurricanes in the future -- but the Trust for Historic Preservation warns that the city's 19th century Greek Revival and Italianate buildings, characterized by the elaborate cast-iron storefronts in the city's National Historic Landmark District, may not survive long. Once the "Wall Street of the Southwest," this historic district took a serious blow from the 10-plus foot floodwaters that Ike spawned. This historic district is one of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in the U.S., according to the Trust for Historic Preservation, which is supporting local groups in efforts to restore and protect the district.

The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 through November. Check the hurricane forecast, then go visit Galveston's historic financial district now.

Crabbing for Blues in Chesapeake Bay

Nothing defines the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the U.S., like the blue crab (though the oyster and striped bass come close). In Latin, this crab is known as "beautiful swimmer," and its white flesh is as tasty as its disposition is ornery.

Estuaries are one of the most productive of the world's marine nurseries, as a diversity of life thrives in the fresh-salt slosh at the interface of land and sea. But it's been harder and harder for Maryland and Virginia watermen to catch blue crabs in the Chesapeake -- in 15 years, the population of blue crabs plunged 70%. In 2008, the federal government dolled out $10 million to each state to prop up the iconic crab fishing industry, and in Virginia, recreational fishing for blue crabs was banned altogether (though, following promising recent surveys showing a population bump, a more restricted season has been restored for 2009).

How could this happen? Overfishing in the past is one answer, but given the vastness of the land that drains into the Chesapeake, the answer is much more complicated. If the bay's watershed were a state, it would be the nation's 24th largest -- and pollution in the form of erosion from farm fields and suburban sprawl, oily runoff from roads and parking lots, as well as industrial and sewage discharges all wind up in the bay. Seasonal "dead zones" choke off oxygen from the water, and the ecosystem is subjected to a cascade of insults. Overall, the watershed scored Cs and Ds on its latest report cards.

(Virtually every watershed in the United States -- even that trickle of a stream running through your neighborhood -- faces many of the same threats, in various combinations and at various scales. It's tough -- to say the least -- to protect a watershed, in part because so many different landowners and local governments have a say in how land is used. To see what you can do to protect the watershed you live in, try these tips from the Chesapeake Bay Program.)

The problem has not gone unnoticed -- far from it. Maryland, Virginia and the U.S. government have led a 25-year, multi-state effort to improve conditions throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed, in order to restore the estuary's legendary abundance. President Obama recently gave the program a kick start. But to date, the results can hardly be called a success, despite more than $6 billion spent.

Everyone's pulling for the bay and its blue crabs, but -- just in case -- you might want to get yourself a crab pot now and see what you catch.

Salmon Fishing on the Snake River

From its origins in Yellowstone National Park, the 1,040-mile Snake River once produced half the wild chinook salmon found in the mighty Columbia River, the largest U.S. river to discharge into the Pacific Ocean. In fact, the upper Snake River has the most extensive freshwater salmon habitat in the lower 48 states. So why does the federal government rate salmon fishing in the designated "Scenic and Wild" stretch of the river as only fair?

In a word: Dams.

The four dams on the lower Snake River have so choked the once-prolific salmon runs that the group American Rivers named it one of the most endangered rivers in America. This spring, a federal judge said federal officials had to at least consider breaching dams to save salmon, and the Obama Administration is considering options. (The Snake River is not at all unique, by the way: Dams -- many of them useless -- in rivers and streams across the U.S. block the passage of fish, prevent the flow of nutrients and otherwise choke off native freshwater life.)

If the dams aren't breached, or another solution found, some experts worry that the remaining salmon runs will go extinct, as several have already. The threat of global warming, which is making water warmer and less hospitable to salmon, trout and many other sensitive freshwater species, only adds urgency to the issue. It could be that a generation from now, 2 million steelhead and chinook salmon will spawn in the Snake River, as they once did -- but it's probably a good idea to do your fishing now, just in case.

Climbing Mount Taylor

Whether or not you embark on the 28th annual Mount Taylor Challenge in 2010, a 42-mile quadrathlon, (13 miles on a road bikes, 5 miles on foot, 2 miles of cross-country skiing and one mile of snowshoeing ... before you turn around and head back down the mountain) Mount Taylor is a landscape to respect, even revere. That, anyway, is what native cultures like the Navajo did, and its presence on the landscape was enough to inspire a presidential moniker; its current name owes itself to President Zachary Taylor. (President Who? You remember -- Old Rough and Ready, who served for just 16 months before his untimely death.)

Why visit now?

The New Mexico peak is one of the 11 most endangered historic places in the U.S., according to the Trust for Historic Preservation. The threat comes in the form of uranium mining, which has already scarred the area during past boom times for the mineral needed to power nuclear reactors.

The bigger issue is a U.S. mining law that is, at best, described as "antiquated." Enacted by a better-known U.S. President, Ulysses S. Grant, the 1872 Mining Law makes it easy for companies to annually exploit about $1 billion in hard rock minerals found on public lands, including uranium near the Grand Canyon -- without paying any royalties to the federal government, and without consideration of mining's effect on tourism, the natural beauty of a landscape or the landscape's cultural importance.

Whether or not Mount Taylor is mined will have a lot to do with the effectiveness of local opposition and the speed with which momentum builds toward national reform of that 137-year-old law. In the meantime, now might be a good time to visit.

Plan your trips now, while you still can: 10 endangered vacation destinations
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