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CRATER LAKE — Major road and parking lot improvements, a possible Sister City agreement with China, the Crater Lake Lodge’s 100th anniversary, the National Park Service’s 2016 Centennial, expanded vehicle-free days and creation of a possible Crater Lake symphony are among many projects at a busy Crater Lake National Park slated for this season.

“We’re expecting record numbers of visitors this year,” predicts park superintendent Craig Ackerman, who believes visitation for 2015, which peaks in July and August, will exceed the 530,000 figure reached last year. “I think this is going to be an over-the-top season.”

Basin impact

Crater Lake’s impact on the Klamath Basin is significant. As a recent study for 2014 indicates, more than 535,000 people visited the park last year and spent nearly $45 million in nearby communities, including Klamath Falls.

That spending supported 769 jobs and had a cumulative benefit to the local economy of more than $61 million.

Because of a major road and parking area construction project, some of this summer’s visitors may find travel in the park challenging.

Ray Moore, Crater Lake’s chief of maintenance, said the first phase of a three-year $18 million project will create delays for motorists along portions of Rim Drive between the North Entrance junction and Cleetwood Cove. Moore said park officials had hoped work would begin this month, but were informed Wednesday by the contractor, Tidewater Construction, that work won’t start until early June.

Early plowing

The light snowpack allowed snowplow crews to clear West Rim Drive from Rim Village to the North Entrance junction more than a month ago. The road has remained closed, partly in hopes construction crews could begin road work before it opened to public travel.

Most years, park crews scramble to clear the North Entrance, which makes entering and exiting the park easier for Highway 97 travelers, for a Memorial Day Weekend opening. Some snowy years the road has not opened until mid-June.

Moore said the West Rim Road may open May 15, the same day the Crater Lake Lodge opens, if park staffing needs can be met. Park seasonal employees, who do maintenance and trail work, staff entrance stations and give interpretive programs, typically don’t begin working until early June.

Until the road opens for public use, Rim Drive from Rim Village to the North Junction and Cleetwood Cove are vehicle-free and open to bicyclists, walkers and runners.

“I recommend it,” Moore said of taking advantage of the closed road. “It’s a car-free way to see the lake.”

Some of the projects and their status include:

Road and parking lot construction

The three-year, $18 million federally funded Rim Drive reconstruction project will begin in June. This year’s focus will be reconstructing Rim Drive from the North Junction to Cleetwood Cove and completely reconstructing the Rim Village parking area between the outdoor restrooms and Crater Lake Lodge.

At no time will the entire parking area be closed, but parking is expected to be limited. Motorists on impacted areas of Rim Drive could face delays of up to 30 minutes.

Work on reconstructing and enlarging the Cleetwood Cove parking area, location of the only trail that goes to the lake, is planned for 2016. The project will add 53 parking sites, including several designated for trailers, and vault toilets. Because parking will be limited during construction, the park is developing plans to operate a shuttle service.

Cleetwood Cove trail, tour boats

The Cleetwood Cove Trail isn’t expected to open until mid-June, when concession-operated tour boats will begin daily operations. Moore said the trail within the caldera rim “always needs a lot of work” because of damage caused by rockfalls, especially in low snowfall years.

The two-hour long boat tours, which include talks by a park ranger, will be offered eight times daily with two tours available for stopovers at Wizard Island.

In previous years, only two of the concessionaire’s three boats were used with the third kept at the Cleetwood Cove dock in case of an emergency. After discussions with the U.S. Coast Guard, it was learned holding a boat at the dock is not required. In case of emergencies, each tour boat has inflatable rescue rafts and a secondary motor.

For the first time, a park ranger will be assigned to the Cleetwood Cove area, traveling between the rim and lake, to help prevent people from walking the trail with dogs, ensure trail walkers have adequate water and handle medical issues.

Crater Lake Lodge

Several to-be announced activities are planned in celebration of the Crater Lake Lodge’s 100th anniversary. The 72-room lodge opens for this season Friday, May 15. Mike Keller, Crater Lake’s manager for Xanterra, the park’s concessionaire, said commemorative products, such as plates and menu covers, will be offered along with a special program tentatively set for Aug. 25.

Keller said some Mazama Village operations, including the cabins, stores and campground, will open this month. He said Crater Lake’s Xanterra staff will increase to 150 and 180 people later this month and reach a peak of about 210 during the summer.

Impacts of the ongoing drought

While the lack of winter snow — the park received only about 200 inches of its usual 524 inches of snow — allows the early opening of roads and facilities, it has other impacts.

“It’s going to be a bad year,” Ackerman said of water concerns. Last year there were concerns shortages might create a need for water to be trucked into the park, an estimated cost of thousands of dollars a month.

A ruling by the Oregon Water Resources Commission guaranteed water for human consumption, including cooking, drinking and sanitation.

Ackerman said the park has drilled a test well capable of producing 200 gallons a minute with “water so clear it doesn’t need to be treated.” The park requires about 60 gallons a minute. Use of the well is not yet being done because of ongoing water rights issues with the state.

To conserve water, the park has spent $185,000 in recent years. Measures include retrofitted water distribution fixtures at the lodge, hotel, campgrounds and all park residences.

Xanterra has replaced all water fixtures with low-flow toilets and valves, and no longer automatically replaces towels and sheets and water is served at food service outlets only by request. Visitors and employees will again asked to take shorter showers.

The ongoing drought may also impact fire crews. Chief Ranger Curt Dimmick said 45 fires burned 300 acres last summer, also a dry year. The unusually long 2014 fire season began in July and ended in late September, but Dimmick expects “this year could see it expand even more.”

Sister City project

Three delegates representing the Chinese province of Fujian spent three days at Crater Lake earlier this year during a tour of Southern Oregon. Ackerman said the Chinese government may send a larger delegation to the park in late June with the goal of signing a Sister City agreement between Crater Lake and Mount Wuyi World Heritage and Cultural Site.

“I don’t think it’s unreasonable to have it done by November,” he said of signing an agreement.

He said Mount Wuyi receives nine million visitors a year, compared to about 500,000 at Crater Lake, but noted the Chinese park does not have rangers or programs common in the U.S.

“There’s a lot of benefit to their parks,” he said of why the Chinese support the Sister City program. “I saw plenty we can learn from them,” said Ackerman, who visited Mount Wuyi and said its shuttle system “would be the envy of any park in the U.S.”

He also said tourism studies indicate China will have most inbound visitors from any country to the U.S. by 2017 “and they spend money.” Crater Lake is now planning to translate park brochures to Mandarin to accommodate Chinese visitors.

Vehicle-free days

Vehicle-free days, which proved successful beyond expectations last year, are planned to be offered yearly on the third and fourth Saturdays of September, or Sept. 19 and 26 this summer. In a significant change, this year’s vehicle-free days will include water stations, support vehicles, paramedics and rangers at selected locations, including Cleetwood Cove and Mount Scott.

“It’s becoming really popular really fast,” Ackerman said of designated days when Rim Drive is closed to motorized vehicles from the North Entrance junction east to Cleetwood Cove and around the rim to Munson Valley.

“The more you manage an event the more people will come. We’re looking at the potential for thousands of people,” he said, noting bicycling, running or hiking around portions or the entire 33-mile long Rim Drive is a non-polluting, positive activity that also serves as an economic boost to the park and neighboring communities.

“What better way to see the park than on a bicycle?”

2016 NPS Centennial

With the National Park Service anticipating its 100th anniversary in 2016, programs at Crater Lake and other NPS units are gearing up. Crater Lake will receive $53,000 for extra seasonal rangers.

Marsha McCabe, Crater Lake’s chief of interpretation, said a selected seasonal will help develop and oversee Centennial events, such as night sky programs.

Ongoing science — water quality, newts, bull trout, pikas and plants

It was 1982 when officials launched a 10-year study of Crater Lake’s water quality. Now, 33 years later, the research continues making Crater Lake “one of the best studied deep lakes in the world,” according to Mac Brock, the park’s chief of resource protection.

In recent years, some of the lake research has focused on the spread of crayfish, which now inhabit 80 percent of the shoreline and threaten the native Crater Lake newt, “and we don’t know what we can do about that.”

While a primary focus is the lake, biologist Dave Herring is involved in projects involving threatened bull trout. Populations in park streams had declined to an estimated 150 fish, but have increased and are now regarded as stable.

Herring said a cooperative project with other agencies is resulting in bull trout moving outside the park and eventually, he hopes, to the Wood River.

Park biologists are also learning more about other species. The use of hair snares and camera stations has helped garner information and photographs of black bears, fishers and pine martens and other wildlife.

A several year study on pikas, which ended last summer, showed the “rock rabbit” populations “are holding their own.”

Jen Beck, the park’s botanist, said a concern is the spread of exotic plants. It had been believed exotics, non-native plants that include weeds, were limited to the park’s lower elevation region.

Surveys, however, have located 65 species throughout the park. “This is one of those takes-forever problems,” she said.

Beck and her staff will also be collecting rare plants growing along Rim Drive. Because of the upcoming road construction, seeds of various plants will be collected and, after road work is completed, planted.

Crater Lake Suite

Crater Lake has offered artist-in-residence programs for several years. The program allows emerging and established artists – painters, writers, graphic designers, photographers and others — to live and create art at the park for multi-week periods.

Ackerman said the park is working with the Jacksonville-based Britt Music Festival, through a National Endowment of Arts grant, to work with a composer to develop a Crater Lake Suite.

Under tentative plans, the Britt’s 90-member orchestra will debut the work at the park, probably in 2016. Following the inaugural performance, tentative plans call for smaller groups of the orchestra to perform the suite and other music near Rim Village and other lake viewpoints.