National Park Service serves with innovation

Steve Mietz talked trash to his audience Thursday, April 21 at the University of South Dakota.

The National Park Service (NPS) uses the Big Belly Solar Trash Cans at selected sites, said Mietz, the

Kirsten Wert describes the findings she and her colleagues made while conducting wildlife surveys on the Niobrara Delta of the Missouri River near Springfield last summer. Wert, a biology graduate student at the University of South Dakota, is just one of several speakers participating in the Missouri River Institute Research Symposium at USD April 21. (Photo by David Lias)

Yankton-based superintendent for the Missouri National Recreational River (MNRR).

The system compacts trash in cans along the MNRR, then uses a sensor to notify NPS officials when the cans are full and ready for collection.

Its wicked cool, Mietz said. Theres a cost to get from our Yankton headquarters to the far reaches of the park to empty trash. This system saves gas, time and personnel.

Mietz spoke during Thursdays annual research symposium sponsored by the Missouri River Institute (MRI). He used the trash talk to illustrate just one of the many innovations for better serving the MNRR and those who live along or visit the stretch from Pickstown to Ponca, Neb.

As part of that mission, the NPS will conduct a visitor studies survey from July 28 to Aug. 3, Mietz said.

We have the people tell us what they like about the park and what they dont like, he said. We want to know how we can refocus our resources along the river.

Mietz plans to make greater use of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to connect with the public and provide more information about the river. The NPS is working on more visitor contact stations, and additional signs will be placed this summer along the Missouri River water trail between Yankton and Sioux City, IA.

We want to expand our recreation opportunities, he said. We have day-trip ideas. Its a big, challenging river. We can give you ideas if you have only a day or two.

In that respect, the NPS is encouraging the public, particularly young people, to explore the great outdoors, Mietz said.

We have the Lets Move Outside program, he said. We want people to get away from the computer for a while, to see beyond four inches in front of their face and to get outside.

To gather input on offerings, the NPS is held meetings on its visitor services programming plan Tuesday at the Wagner Armory and Thursday at the Niobrara, NE, fire hall.

The current draft of the plan is available for review at www.nps.gov/mnrr. For questions or more information, email the project coordinator at Anne_Doherty-Stephan@nps.gov or call her at 605-665-0209, Extension 29.

The NPS plans to move forward in a number of other areas, Mietz said. Those areas include water quality, invasive species, cottonwood regeneration, bank erosion, soil bioengineering and monitoring the impact of endangered species habitat.

The NPS works with Nebraska and South Dakota to coordinate river access for visitors, Mietz said. In addition, the NPS finds opportunities for additional work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, he said.

At the federal level, the NPS and U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) are working together on Ponca State Park, Mietz said. The park in northeast Nebraska attracts 500,000 visitors annually, he said.

Mietz plans to increase the NPS presence with more law enforcement rangers along the river. The rangers will work with issues such as the ban of personal watercraft on the MNRR, he said.

The rangers will focus on public awareness during the first year, then tougher enforcement in the following years, Mietz said.

How can we best educate folks and then move to enforcement? he asked.

Mietz also promoted major events at Yankton during the next month. They include the National Junior Ranger Day and Fishing Derby on April 30 at the Gavins Point Fish Hatchery, the Watershed Education Festival on May 6 at Riverside Park, the Missouri River Clean-Up on May 7 kicking off at the Riverside Park boat ramp, and the Clean Boat Event on May 21 at sites below Gavins Point Dam.

The Watershed Education Festival anticipates 389 students in grades 7-12 from Yankton Middle School, Sacred Heart School of Yankton and Vermillion Middle School in South Dakota and Crofton, Lynch and Laurel-Concord in Nebraska.

The attendance has soared for the three-year festival, increasing from 165 students its initial year to 289 last year and 389 this year, said organizer Mary Robb with the City of Yankton.

The kids love it, and the teachers look forward to it each year, she said. Its free, its close to all the schools in the area and its a very educational experience right here in their back yard.

The festival provides unique opportunities, said NPS Ranger Dugan Smith.

Its more than having someone speak at you. There is interaction and hands-on learning, he said. And people learn what our agencies do.

The festival will adjust to the greater demand and shouldnt have problems, said Paul Lepisto of Pierre, regional coordinator with the Izaak Walton League of America.

Our group size has gone from 15 students the first year to 22 the next year and 30 to 35 this year, he said. Our presenters will need to deal with a much larger group of students, but we can handle it with our teachers and volunteers.

The festival features 11 presenters, with students able to attend six of the 15-minute sessions. The morning will conclude with the keynote address by Vicki Richmond, director of Missouri River Relief. The Columbia, MO, organization will also provide equipment and personnel for river clean-up while in the area.

The festival will broaden its topics this year, Smith said.

We are emphasizing the cultural and historical as well as the environmental, he said. Jerome Kills Small from the University of South Dakota will give a presentation on the Native American relationship with the Missouri River.

The festival has already become a tradition, Robb said.

We had teachers from Vermillion and Sacred Heart tell us the first year, before they even got on the bus to return home, that we should make sure to invite them the next year, she said. And that was before we even decided to have it another year.

Many students return with their families for the next days river clean-up, Lepisto said. The clean-up, now in its eighth year, picked up 2.6 tons of trash in just its first year.

Missouri River Relief said this is one of their favorite places to come to, he said.

This years clean-up faces a critical challenge, Lepisto said.

The river is really going to run high this year, and thats going to make it much more difficult for the clean-up. The snowpack will continue melting, he said.

The Corps just announced (Thursday, April 21) that it was ramping up its Missouri River releases to 39,500 cfs (cubic feet per second). Were dealing with high water. We have to be careful where we drop off people for the clean-up, and they have to be careful where they walk.

The three May events at Yankton have created a river awareness that may have been lacking even among lifelong area residents, Lepisto said.

People learn the different issues that the river is facing, he said. They werent aware that the Missouri River was facing those challenges. Now, they open their eyes and ears to what is going on in their back yard.

For more information on the events or to volunteer, contact Robb at mrobb@cityofyankton.org or (605) 668-5211; Smith at dugan_smith@nps.gov or (605) 665-0209; or Lepisto at plepisto@iwla.org or (605) 224-1770.

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