Walmart Cancels Plans to Build at Civil War Battlefield, a Top 10 Endangered Vacation

From Bristol Bay to the state park next door, some of America's cherished vacation destinations are at risk.

Also see 10 Endangered Vacations: 2009 Edition

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Touring Civil War Battle Sites

Update: In January 2011, Walmart canceled plans to build a store near the Wilderness Battlefield.

While some Civil War battlefields are preserved and open for public vacationers, some of the nation's sacred scarred grounds, where tens of thousands of soldiers died, are vulnerable to development or mining that threatens their integrity as monuments to those fallen soldiers.

One battlefield, in Virginia's Piedmont region, was the site of a May 1864 battle that claimed as many as 28,000 lives, and was the site where Generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant first matched wits. But the Battle of the Wilderness has reignited now that Walmart is planning a 51-acre big-box retail park outside Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania Military Park (pictured here), which protects only a portion of the historic battlefield. "If Walmart ignores American heritage and bulldozes the battlefield," the National Trust for Historic Preservation writes in naming the Wilderness battlefield one of its 11 most endangered historic places for 2010, "the first impression 95 percent of visitors to the National Park would have of the Wilderness Battlefield would be an oversized bunker of a big-box store in a sea of asphalt perched above a massive intersection."

The situation is similar at several other Civil War battlefields, including Wilson's Creek National Battlefield and Pea Ridge National Military Park in Missouri, and Fort Donelson National Battlefield, Shiloh National Military Park, Stones River National Battlefield, and Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park in Tennessee, all of which the National Parks Conservation Association says are threatened by funding shortfalls and "adjacent development that mars historical and scenic views that are essential to interpreting American history and providing visitors with a memorable experience."

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Salmon Fishing in the Pacific Northwest

Two-thirds of the salmon that migrate into California's rivers enter through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a river system that has had half its water diverted for irrigation and drinking water elsewhere in the state. That diversion has come at a great cost to the salmon, which have been off-limits to fishermen for three years, thanks to plunging population numbers. Its winter Chinook salmon run is considered endangered.

It's not alone, as 106 salmon runs in California and the Pacific Northwest are extinct, and 214 of the remaining 400 are at risk according to the American Fisheries Society. The federal government considers many threatened or endangered, particularly those in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, the Snake River and the Columbia River.

The good news is that a scientific board recently made a strong recommendation to restore heavier water flow into the Sacramento-San Joqquin River Delta, which would help restore lost salmon habitat. "(The report) demonstrates that we have hit 'peak water' in the Bay-Delta – that we are diverting an unsustainable amount of water from the Delta, and we’re unlikely to be able to divert that much in the future," NRDC's Doug Obegi writes. "Water agencies would be wise to recognized this conclusion and plan accordingly."

Many good decisions would have to follow to restore the strong salmon runs to the dozens of rivers and streams that have lost them or seen declines, though.

See 10 Endangered Vacations, 2009 edition, including salmon fishing on the Snake River. Unfortunately, many are still endangered.

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Kelvin Aitken / photo library
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Turtle Watching in Puerto Rico's Northeast Ecological Corridor

Puerto Rico's Northeast Ecological Corridor is a 3,000-acre beach wilderness that provides important nesting habitat for endangered hawksbill and leatherback sea turtles (like the one pictured here), as well as more than 50 rare, threatened or endangered birds (among them: several that became well-known to U.S. residents during the Gulf oil spill, like the snowy plover and the brown pelican). The region also boasts coral reefs, a bioluminescent lagoon and "Le Selva," which the Sierra Club calls "one of the hottest surfing spots" on Puerto Rico's east coast.

The problem is that Puerto Rico's governor, Luis Fortuño wants to cancel the area's designation as a nature reserve, opening it to a massive development, with two resorts run by Marriott and Four Seasons, 4,500 residential and tourist homes and four – yes, four – golf courses. The Sierra Club is leading a coalition opposing the proposal. The Northeast Ecological Corridor (which would benefit from a more romantic name, don't you think?) was named one of the 7 Natural Wonders of Puerto Rico. It won't be so wondrous if sea turtle nests are swapped for another 18 holes of golf.

See which sea turtles are threatened by the BP oil spill.

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Fishing the Gulf of Mexico

While tourist communities around the Gulf Coast are rightly trying to avoid unwarranted black eyes, many tourist destinations and vacation activities along the Gulf Coast have been affected by BP's oil gusher.

Tar balls washed up on Gulf Islands National Seashore, but spared seven other national parks in the region. More than 2,000 beaches in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida were closed or otherwise affected in the first 100 days. Fishing remains restricted in a vast stretch of the Gulf of Mexico. And wildlife watching activities from bird-watching to sea turtle spotting are at risk, as the ecological problems associated with the spill may not end with the capping of the runaway well. The long-term threat from the spill – and continued offshore oil drilling in the Gulf – will only become clear over time. The most likely impacts, if any, will be felt in the region's seafood, according to NRDC policy analyst Ali Chase. Will oysters rebound, for instance, from the double-hit of oily water and increased freshwater flows? Even seafood that remains uncontaminated could suffer population declines, so that once-abundant species could be diminished for years. And it's unclear what impact those deepwater plumes of dispersed oil could have on the Gulf's ecosystem, and ultimately its recreational fishing potential. In September, scientists identified a layer of oily scum on the Gulf floor.

"The surface isn't the only place the oil poses a risk. There's still a lot of oil out in the Gulf – as much as 100 million gallons," Chase told The Daily Green. "We don't have a sense right now of what the long-term impacts of the system might be."

See BP Gulf oil spill update.

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Fly-Fishing the Upper Delaware River

New York's majestic Catskill Mountains may not be as tall as their cousins the Adirondacks, but their beauty and quiet attract about a half a million visitors every year, many of them New York City residents who also benefit from the pure drinking water extracted from the mountains and piped to the city. Fly-fishing was born in the Catskills, and the hiking, bird-watching and kayaking opportunities represent just a taste of the region's possibilities.

The threat to the region comes in the form of one of its hidden assets: Vast natural gas deposits in the Marcellus Shale formation, which stretches from the Catskills through the southern tier of New York, through Pennsylvania and into West Virginia. New technological advances, aided by toxic chemical mixtures companies can keep secret (thanks to a deal brokered during the Bush Administration) make these natural gas deposits available for exploitation for the first time. New York City and conservationists have so far been successful in keeping so-called "fracking" operations (short for hydraulic fracturing) out of watershed lands, but the drilling boom is only beginning, and the land could be scarred just as the water could be poisoned in a landscape that helped inspire the Hudson River School painters, America's first indigenous art movement. The nonprofit group American Rivers named the Upper Delaware River, in the Catskills, as one of America's most endangered rivers in 2010, along with, for the same reason, the Monongahela River in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. New York's Senate has passed a 15-month moratorium on fracking, but the Assembly has yet to vote on the measure.

Bryan Harry / National Parks Service
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Bird-Watching in Hawaii

Hawaii, like many islands, is home to wildlife that is all the more remarkable for being unique; creatures evolved different strategies for survival in isolation, leading to high densities of creatures that live only on single islands. For many Hawaiian birds, however, that extraordinary run is coming to an end, as global travel and commerce introduce so many new threats that they can't adapt fast enough to survive.

New diseases – like avian malaria, are being spread by a species of mosquito that isn't native to the Hawaiian islands, for instance. Climate change could cause those diseases to spread farther up mountain slopes, threatening more birds. Meanwhile, other species that are new to the Hawaiian islands compete with native birds or prey upon them.

The end result is a massive decline in native Hawaiian birds – 71 of 113 native bird species have already gone extinct. Ten other species haven't been seen for 40 years, and could well be extinct, and another 21 are considered threatened or endangered (including the Hawaiian hawk, pictured here).

There will always be birds in Hawaii, but they may not be the unique native birds for which the islands are known.

See how you can create a bird garden to protect species in your backyard.

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Visiting Joshua Tree National Park

This is one park that might need a new name before too long. Joshua Tree National Park is losing its Joshua trees. Michael Cipra, a program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, laid out the bad news for Congress in testimony delivered the prognosis in 2009: The iconic trees will have substantially died back, and will have stopped reproducing within 100 years.

"As a result of climate change, there may no longer be Joshua trees in Joshua Tree National Park," Cipra testified. "This plant is not just an iconic image on a postcard — it is critical to the health of this desert ecosystem. Ecologists refer to the Joshua tree as a 'foundation species' — a plant that serves as living habitat for a whole range of animals, providing food and shelter critical to the survival of everything from great horned owls, which nest in the tree tops, to night lizards, North America's smallest lizards, which give live birth to their young beneath decaying bark of the Joshua tree."

There you have it. If you like great horned owls, night lizards ... or Joshua trees, visit Joshua Tree National Park sooner than later.

See more endangered national parks.

Snorkeling Biscayne National Park's Coral Reefs

The National Park Service gets rhapsodic when it describes Biscayne National Park: "Within sight of downtown Miami, yet worlds away, Biscayne protects a rare combination of aquamarine waters, emerald islands, and fish-bejeweled coral reefs."

So you can imagine how crest-fallen visitors to this unique coral reef beside a major city would feel if the last piece of that enchanting equation – the "fish-bejeweled coral reefs" – disappeared.

Coral reefs around the world are endangered by a variety of threats – pollution runoff from nearby land, increasingly warm water, bleaching, overfishing, ocean acidification and even over-use by tourists. In Biscayne National Park, coral reefs are most threatened by increased water temperatures and the spread of disease. In about 20 years, coral cover in the park decreased by half, and the diversity of species living there declined as much as 29%.

Snorklers take note. Make your visit to Biscayne National Park now. But since tourists can also hasten the decline of the reefs, be sure to snorkel responsibly.

See more endangered national parks.

Roughing It in Lake Clark National Park

One of the least-visited national parks, in remote Alaska, Lake Clark is nonetheless staggeringly beautiful. And, unfortunately, threatened.

A new gold rush has inspired 1,000 square miles' worth of gold claims since 2003 – directly adjacent to Lake Clark National Park, and near to Katmai National Park, in the salmon-rich headwaters of Bristol Bay, according to the National Parks Conservation Association and other environmental groups. Late in 2008, the Bush Administration opened another 1 million acres of nearby federal lands to mining.

Most threatening is the Pebble Mine, which is even being opposed by many jewelry makers because it poses such an environmental threat to the landscape and to the headwaters of Bristol Bay, which boasts the world's largest sockeye salmon run.

"If built, Pebble Mine could become the largest open-pit mine in North America (only 14 miles from Lake Clark national park)," according to the National Parks Conservation Association. "It could also become a catalyst for industrialization of 1,000 square miles of mining claims staked since 2003 along the west side of the park, all of which are precariously located in the headwaters of Bristol Bay, one of the last remaining intact wild sockeye salmon fisheries on Earth."

If you've craved an experience in untouched Arctic nature, on the Pacific ring of fire, or a once-in-a-lifetime salmon fishing trip, then visit soon.

See more endangered national parks.

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Visiting State Parks

While the parks themselves may remain safe, your access to them is at risk. Nearly every state – 46 of them, to be exact – are so far in the red that they'll have to cut or raise 19% or more from 2010 spending plans to balance their 2011 budgets. When one-fifth of state spending has to go, parks are among the line items that get crossed out. At least two states, New York and South Dakota, raised fees at state parks in this budget cycle (including a new parking fee at New York's magnificent new Walkway Over the Hudson State Park, pictured) and 2011 proposals nationwide again put state park funding at risk, according to Ben Husch, of the National Association of State Budget Officers.

In 2009, state parks generated $20 billion in economic activity in the states, so leaders may be wise to keep many parks open – especially with personal budgets tight, too, making so-called staycations close to home an attractive option.

Find the best local hike in your area, and read more about Fred Schaeffer, who won a 2010 Heart of Green Award for his work to create Walkway Over the Hudson State Park.