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National parks go off line

Closure order by judge hits Smokies, 384 other facilities

By Richard Powelson, News-Sentinel Washington bureau

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park's Web site had 1.9 million visitors last year, but no one is looking at it now.

The Smokies' Web site, along with those for the 384 other National Park Service units, is closed by court order until further notice. Also, only two sites of many agencies under the U.S. Department of the Interior are currently allowed to function at www.doi.gov.

The problem started in Washington, D.C., where a court case brought by American Indians alleges about 100 years of mismanagement of the American Indian trust fund by Interior officials. A computer expert hired to aid the case was able to hack into Interior's Web site, which has access to Indian trust fund information.

So U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth ordered all Interior Web sites shut down, except for two dealing with emergency services, until there is a guarantee of security for the trust fund information.

Smokies' spokesman Bob Miller said the Web site shutdown also prevents any sending of e-mail from Park Service staff to outside units and vice versa.

The court order was issued Dec. 5, but Smokies' employees did not realize the e-mail limitations until two days later, he said.

"This is a slow period for us," said David Barna of the National Park Service in Washington, D.C. "If this was June or July, we'd be swamped with calls" about losing Web site access to individual parks through www.nps.gov.

Visitation at the Smokies is lowest this time of year, Miller said. The park, for example, will not begin taking reservations for camp sites in mid-May, a busy period, until Jan. 5. Campsites now are available on a first-come, first-served basis, Miller said.

When the Smokies closed Newfound Gap Road for upgrades, officials began posting the latest road information on the park's Web site. Now visitors can get that information in advance by calling toll-free, 1-888-355-1849.

When the Web site was active, it offered video views reflecting the visibility at key scenic spots in the park, with updates every 15 minutes. Visitors also could check on area lodging, study a map of places to plan to see on the next visit, and peruse popular itineraries.

For now, it's back to pre-Web days of the early 1990s. If you want to study the Smokies' options, study a travel guide at the library or at certain bookstores.

Miller said everyone has been spoiled by the ease of accessing Web sites.

There is no definite date that the Interior sites will be open to the public again, Interior spokesman John Wright said. Most of the department's 70,000 employees are affected by the restrictions on information from the Web site closures and limits on e-mail, he said.

Even payroll records are affected by the computer restrictions, and it's uncertain if park employees will get their twice-a-month checks on time, Miller said.

Friends of the Great Smoky Mountains, a private booster group for the park, has not received many calls about the Park Service Web site, spokesman Charles Maynard said. He said people can get some information about the Smokies from his group's Web site, www.friendsoftheSmokies.org.

December 14, 2001

Copyright 2001, KnoxNews. All Rights Reserved.

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