Sunday, May 28, 2017

New park service aircraft offers help from above at Lake Mead

The National Park Service has a faster way to respond to emergency calls on Lake Mead, just in time for the start of the busy summer season.

The agency recently upgraded to an airplane that can land on the water and quickly render assistance even in the park’s most remote coves.

Park pilot Scott Taylor said he can reach just about any part of the 1.5 million-acre Lake Mead National Recreation Area in 30 minutes or less.

And Taylor is a fully trained law enforcement ranger, so as soon as the new float plane touches down at a scene, he can jump out to rescue a struggling swimmer, provide medical aid or stop a crime in progress.

Taylor said he’s made about 30 water landings all over Lake Mead and Lake Mohave since the modified Cessna 206 went into service a few weeks ago. He said he only has responded to two emergencies so far, both of them search-and-rescue calls that turned out to be drownings.

The “new” Cessna is actually 12 years old but has been upgraded with a new turbine engine, all new avionics and the park service’s trademark green and white color scheme. The floats have retractable wheels inside them so the aircraft also can touch down on land.

Taylor said it has been almost 50 years since the park service had its own float plane at Lake Mead.

It was an expensive upgrade but well worth it for all the services it will provide, said Chelsea Kennedy, spokeswoman for the recreation area. “It’s a huge force multiplier for us to be able to do more with less resources,” she said.

The new aircraft is also considerably quieter than Lake Mead’s last plane, another Cessna 206 the park service bought in 1984 and mostly used as “an aerial observation platform” to patrol remote areas, conduct searches, spot wildfires and count crowds on busy weekends.

Taylor said the new plane will continue to fill all those roles and be available for direct, rapid response to emergencies. “I try to fly every day the park is busy,” he said Wednesday. “We have a whole heck of a lot of backcountry to keep an eye on.”

The recreation area east of Las Vegas expects between 150,000 and 200,000 visitors over Memorial Day weekend, which typically ranks as the park’s busiest three-day stretch of the year.

Taylor is in his fourth year as Lake Mead’s pilot ranger. Before that, he spent three years at Big Bend National Park in Texas and three years at Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota, where he landed on floats in the summer and skis in the winter.

His first job as a park pilot came at Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, a remote, 2.5 million-acre park service site in the Alaskan interior. Instead of a float plane, the aircraft he flew there came with “big bush wheels,” he said.

Here comes the heat

In cooler climates, summer marks the beginning of the outdoor season. In the Mojave Desert, it’s when some public recreation amenities shut down until fall.

The closures began May 15 at Lake Mead National Recreation Area, where two hiking trails leading down to the Colorado River have been shut down by the National Park Service. The Goldstrike Canyon and Arizona Hot Spring trails will remain off limits to hikers until Sept. 30 to avoid the extreme heat.

After the Memorial Day weekend, Moapa National Wildlife Refuge and the visitor centers at Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area and Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge will switch to shortened summer hours.

Sloan Canyon’s visitor contact station will be open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Friday through Sunday and the Pahranagat visitor center will be open from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. Moapa will be closed altogether until Labor Day weekend.

This is also the last weekend to use the only developed campground at Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. The aptly named Red Rock Canyon Campground is slated to close down for the summer at noon Tuesday and reopen again on Sept. 1.

Elsewhere at Red Rock, the Sandstone Quarry parking area on the scenic loop will close after the long weekend for about three months of scheduled renovations. The Pine Creek parking lot is already closed for construction, while the newly renovated Calico I parking lot is now finished and open again.

The Bureau of Land Management said visitors to Red Rock Canyon this weekend should come prepared for heavy traffic and hot weather.

“I suggest people bring plenty of water and wear proper clothing,” said BLM spokesman John Asselin. “People should also be aware the snakes are out, so keep your eyes open, and don’t go near them.”

June 1 also marks the start of fire restrictions on federal land in the area. With a few exceptions, the use of campfires, charcoal stoves, fireworks, tracer rounds, explosives, welding equipment, and off-road vehicles without a spark arrestors is prohibited typically into or through September.

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