In 1984, a Death Valley National Park visitor tragically lost their life when they fell down a goldmine shaft that had been dug out in the 1930s.

Park officials immediately attempted to find and secure all of the abandoned mines in the park that covers 3.39 million acres. Work was done to make sure openings had netting or gates around them, but proper funding to deal with a significant amount of the open mines was unavailable.

Five years ago, the handful of employees at Death Valley who were in charge of maintaining the thousands of abandoned mines in the park retired, leaving them without much supervision. Though no fatal accidents have occurred at any of the unstable mines since the 1984 accident, park officials consider it not a matter of when another accident will occur, but when.

Recently, the park was forced to shut down its Keane Wonder Mine – one of the most successful goldmines in Death Valley. The historic structures built around the mine are also a safety hazard as they suffer from rot and decay.

On April 22, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced that $750 million would be invested in the national park system under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

To Terry Baldino, public information officer for Death Valley National Park, the opportunity to fix the hazardous mines that have plagued his park for more than 20 years immediately presented itself.

“This is one [project] we put forward right away saying ‘well if we need help it’s with these abandoned mines,’” Baldino said. “Keane Wonder has gaping holes the miners left behind and over the years, nature is not very kind to manmade openings and they are really getting to a point to where they are starting to collapse on their own.”

California parks are receiving $97 million in federal funds, funding that will help jump start close to 100 projects statewide. Death Valley was granted $4.8 million for gate and other safety installations in several locations, including Keane Wonder Mine.     

The money will go toward erecting gates around prominent open mines that are typically available to park visitors who venture off the main roads. The gates will be designed to keep people out but still allow for species such as bats that use the mines for a safe haven to come in and out, Baldino said.

In addition, Death Valley received $4 million to, among other projects, replace several Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailers that are currently being used for park employee housing. Two duplexes and an apartment building with three single-bedroom houses will be constructed for the ten to eighteen seasonal park employees who live on the grounds, Baldino said.

“They have obviously outlived their usefulness, they are falling apart,” Baldino said.
The park will also convert a water plant to photovoltaic power, fix roofs on historic buildings and put steel coating on parkways and driveways.     

Hybrid-Electric Shuttles

Yosemite National Park is receiving $1.2 million in federal stimulus money for the purchase of two new hybrid-electric shuttle buses to be used for visitor tours and transportation. The park gets 3.5 million visitors per year and during the peak summer months of July and August, many visitors can’t find room on the current fleet, said Park Ranger Scott Gediman.

Gediman said the addition of the two buses would alleviate some of the congestion problems.

“It’s our goal as a national park service to have visitors park their car and then walk or ride a bike or take the shuttle bus; we are trying to discourage visitors from driving from place to place and the way we do that is to have visitors park in one parking lot and then have them go from place to place,” Gediman said.

Yosemite is the only national park in the country to have an all hybrid-electric fleet of shuttle buses. In 2005, the park replaced their diesel shuttle buses with 18 hybrid-electric buses. The two new buses funded with the federal stimulus money will have the same transmission – developed by Allison Transmission Inc., a General Motors company – and same body type as the 18 buses purchased four years ago.

In addition to alleviating traffic, the new buses will help the environment, Gediman said.

“They get 60 percent better fuel economy than a traditional diesel bus and 90 percent fewer emissions,” he said.

Yosemite is receiving $7.4 million in total stimulus funding. Other projects include renewable solar equipment, the replacement of roofs on several historic buildings and paint upgrades.

One of the reasons the hybrid-electric bus project was approved by the Department of Interior is the buses had already been manufactured specifically for Yosemite in 2005, meaning the design process was already taken care of. This allows the project to meet one of the major requirements established by President Barack Obama and Congress when the Reinvestment Act was passed in February: It can be completed by September 2010.

Project Selection

The National Park Service, a bureau of the Department of Interior, has an ongoing maintenance system that keeps an inventory of all the national park assets from visitor centers, to camp grounds, to water treatment plants. When park agencies became aware that federal funding would be available earlier this year, projects were pulled from this system and prioritized, said Jeffrey Olson, spokesman for the National Park Service.

“These were projects in which we had to obligate all of the funding for them before the end of September 2010.” Olson said. “A lot of these projects are pretty far along when it comes to design, development, permitting, any kind of special use permits, any kind of environmental assessments.”

A second criterion for selection was that the projects must stimulate local economies.

“People that live in the area of these projects are going to be the ones who are going to go to work for contractors,” Olson said. “We will contract with all sorts of different companies, to do drill work, to build roads, to build visitor centers, to install some of these energy efficiency upgrades and the people that do those jobs will be hired by these companies.”

The projects also have to have a lasting value to the parks and the tax payers, Olson said.

Baldino is certain that the installation of safety gates to protect visitors from the mines that took a life in 1984 will go a long way in helping out the local economy as well as provide long lasting value to the park.

“This is going to be looked upon quite highly as far as some of these businesses that have been wanting to get their folks back to work,” Baldino said. “We’re not going to be building lots of houses, we are obviously going to need folks that know how to put metal gates together or how to bulldoze entrances closed if that becomes appropriate.”

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