Probing – 25 Puzzling Park Service

Probing the Depths of Crater Lake: A Century of Scientific Research by Douglas Larson

 It is puzzling why Park Service officials responded as they did to the sewage issue. Perhaps they realized they had a serious pollution problem on their hands but wanted to avoid adverse publicity and career-ending allegations of mismanagement and neglect. They had already been embarrassed by the discovery in 1975 that sewage had contaminated the park’s main source of drinking water. In October 1978, when I first alerted Park Service officials to possible sewage contamination of the lake, I was initially met with nervous skepticism and, later, with resentment for even suggesting such a possibility. I had expected, perhaps naively, that my heads-up information would be well received and that the Park Service would take remedial action before the lake was irreversibly damaged. Instead, the sewage contamination of Crater Lake continued unabated, the impact of which was never scientifically determined.

Crater Lake is a fragile environment besieged by over a half-million visitors each summer and pressured from all sides by relentless cultural expansion, including logging operations, ski resorts, highways, real estate development, and “improvements” to tourist facilities inside the park. Increasing amounts of air pollutants, derived principally from motor vehicles and industries, continue to enter the lake through precipitation and overland runoff. And unless the lake is routinely monitored and researched, we cannot know whether or not it is being damaged until it is too late to take corrective action. In 1886, Clarence Dutton marveled at visitors’ responses to Crater Lake: “It was touching to see the worthy but untutored people, who had ridden a hundred miles in freight-wagons to behold it, vainly striving to keep back tears as they poured forth their exclamations of wonder and joy akin to pain.” (52)  Visitors are still moved by the incredible beauty of Crater Lake. If we do not pay attention, however, that beauty may again be diminished, next time possibly forever.

The author poses on his first field trip to Crater Lake in July 1967. Photo courtesy of D. W. Larson

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