National Park site back online

Roll out the sleeping bags and pitch the tents. The National Park Service is back online.

NPS was officially up and running Feb. 14 to the delight of employees and campers alike.

The popular site, along with staff e-mail, was down for two months following an order from U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth that the Interior Department shut its Internet connections after a computer security firm broke into its systems and reportedly cut a check from funds held in trust for American Indians.

NPS petitioned the court to reconnect Dec. 9 and won approval three days later. That night, it began turning on its 1,339 servers spread over 419 locations.

"It takes awhile for it to propagate through the World Wide Web saying this is a valid address," said NPS spokesman David Barna. "I'm now receiving e-mails from outside the government, which I haven't [received] in two months."

In addition to losing e-mail and electronic time card capabilities while unplugged, the agency couldn't process travel vouchers, promotions, payment for construction work, time cards and bids. It also was unable to put out seasonal ranger applications during winter break when many college students are home.

"It was like the old days," Barna said. "It shows how dependent we've become on the Internet. I would never have guessed the impact."

The site receives about 700,000 hits a month this time of year, evenly divided among people making reservations and using it for educational purposes, he said.

In an effort to get back up as quickly as possible, NPS considered using a private Internet service provider, but the estimated cost -- $70,000 a week -- was too steep.

The agency also explored placing its basic Web pages on the U.S. Geological Survey's system. But even a skeleton of its site would have overloaded USGS, which was allowed to reconnect, as was the National Interagency Fire Center, after an emergency hearing Dec. 8.

However, officials gave the concept a go for items that would place less stress on the system. In addition to posting news releases and media advisories on its home page, NPS has been passing information along to USGS for inclusion on its site.

Testifying at her own contempt trial Feb. 13, Interior Secretary Gale Norton said she has grave concerns about existing systems.

Norton faces five charges that include failing to provide beneficiaries with historical accounting of their money.

"I do know that there are situations where the documents that existed no longer exist," she said.

Lamberth hasn't indicated whether he will put thousands of individual trust accounts in receivership out of Interior's control, a move favored by plaintiffs.

Neal McCaleb, Interior's assistant secretary of Indian affairs, met with tribal leaders in Portland, Ore., Thursday at the eighth in a series of consultation meetings on the agency's plan to improve trust management.

The American Indian community opposes Norton's proposal to create a new Bureau of Indian Trust Management.

Meanwhile, Interior has decided to issue checks on an estimated basis to individual trust beneficiaries, who have been waiting for oil and gas payments. The agency will reconcile the accounts later when related sites are reconnected.

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