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From Sea To Shining Sea: A Year Of “On The Trail” Around America The Beautiful

 ECO Interview

Conor Knighton CBS Sunday Morning Correspondent

CBS Sunday Morning correspondent Conor Knighton is spending 2016 "On The Trail," taking a yearlong, crosscountry look at America's National Parks, airing every other week on CBS Sunday Morning. From Acadia to Zion, he will be reporting and producing the series of stories from the parks, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the founding of the National Park Service.

Over six million viewers regularly see Knighton’s work on CBS Sunday Morning. He recently won his second Daytime Emmy as part of the Sunday Morning team and was nominated for two Los Angeles Emmys for his work on KCET’s SoCal Connected. He also was the recipient of a 2015 LA Press Club award. Mr. Knighton has produced pieces from India, Nicaragua, the United Arab Emirates, Czech Republic, Iceland, and Austria. His commentary has been featured on CNN, HLN, TV Guide, MTV, E!, Oxygen, and KNBC. For more information, including video clips of his National Park Adventures, visit www.conorknighton.com/onthetrail.

Conor Knighton—CBS Sunday Morning Correspondent

Conor Knighton walks with a park ranger in Virgin Islands National Park. The park covers more than one half of Saint John Island and Hassel Island in Saint Thomas harbor and includes quiet coves, blue green waters, and white sandy beaches fringed by lush green hills. Photo credit: CBS News.

Conor Knighton walks with a park ranger in Virgin Islands National Park. The park covers more than one half of Saint John Island and Hassel Island in Saint Thomas harbor and includes quiet coves, blue green waters, and white sandy beaches fringed by lush green hills. Photo credit: CBS News.

Can you tell us a bit about the adventure you are on this year?

All year long, I’m out “On The Trail,” reporting a series of stories set in and around our National Parks for CBS Sunday Morning. On New Year’s Day, I climbed to the top of Cadillac Mountain at Acadia National Park to see the first rays of sun of 2016 [see the 100th Anniversary of the National Park Service]. That piece kicked off our series and my journey. By the end of the year, I’ll have been to all 59 National Parks.

Eco-tourism is a big buzzword these days. Do you think has real value in terms of helping raise awareness about environmental issues?

I do. 2015 was a record-setting year for National Parks in terms of visitation, and it looks like 2016 will top that. People are clearly planning vacations around seeing some of these iconic spots. Sure, some of that may be a bit of “scratch Grand Canyon off the bucket list” type tourism, but I think any time someone is out in nature, they become more environmentally aware. Many of the parks have highlighted environmental issues in their signage and Ranger Programs—it’s tough to leave a National Park without a bit more environmental awareness.

You could have just visited these parks as a tourist. Why get your feet wet in the Everglades or don the diving gear in Biscayne?

I actually wish I was able to explore the parks more than I have been. I could spend several weeks at these places, and I’ve been making a mental list of spots I need to go back to. For the show, we’re trying to capture a very specific story unique to each place. Sometimes that means going really in-depth on a very specific slice of the park.

You visited some of our lesser known parks. Which coastal or ocean area should more people be visiting?

It’s a significant investment of time and money, but a trip out to Dry Tortugas on a sunny day is pretty amazing. You drive all the way to Key West, get on a boat (or a seaplane), and then keep going for 70 more miles. That first glimpse of the islands is spectacular. Once you’re there, there’s a little something for everyone. For instance, Fort Jefferson can occupy history buffs while snorkelers enjoy swimming off shore. I also had a blast at Virgin Islands National Park. It’s another park that takes some planning, but it’s just a three and a half hour flight from New York. The beaches there are some of the best in the world. Within minutes in the water, I had sea turtles swimming right alongside me.

Biscayne National Park is one of three recent focus areas under NOAA’s Habitat Blueprint Plan. What did you learn about the ecosystem when you visited the park?

First, that the park really contains four distinct ecosystems. We were primarily focused on the offshore Florida Reef, but I’m sure we could have done an entire piece devoted to the shoreline mangrove swamp. At first glance, it honestly doesn’t seem like there’s much to Biscayne. It certainly doesn’t have the sweeping vistas of a Yellowstone or a Yosemite. It’s only when you get out on (and under) the water do you really appreciate the diversity of life that exists there.

The British steamer, Lugano, which sank in 1913, now lies 25 ft underwater on Long Reef in Biscayne National Park. Photo credit: CBS News.

The British steamer, Lugano, which sank in 1913, now lies 25 ft underwater on Long Reef in Biscayne National Park. Photo credit: CBS News.

You talk with a lot of ecology specialists when you travel. Have any of their pet projects impressed you along the way?

One of my favorite moments was when Mark Parry, a biologist at Everglades, confessed to being a “croc snob.” We’re often relying on these experts for facts and figures, but I really enjoy finding out the personal reasons that brought them to the park and to their chosen field of study. There aren’t a lot of “accidental” ecology specialists. I was at Devil’s Hole in Death Valley on the day the park scientists did their bi-annual count of the endangered Devil’s Hole pupfish. If you’re into pupfish—and trust me, everyone there was—that was like the Super Bowl. It’s so fun to see people so excited about something so specific.

In Biscayne National Park, off the southern tip of Florida, Knighton followed an underwater trail from shipwreck to shipwreck. Photo credit: CBS News.

In Biscayne National Park, off the southern tip of Florida, Knighton followed an underwater trail from shipwreck to shipwreck. Photo credit: CBS News.

I know you have many more parks yet to visit, can you give us a preview of some of the upcoming ocean and coastal spots and why you think they are important?

America is beautiful from “sea to shining sea.” And it’s crucial those seas stay beautiful. Say “National Park,” and I think the first thing that comes to mind is often mountain ranges and trees. I think it’s important to remember we’ve got some equally spectacular ocean and coastal areas. On my boat ride out to Channel Islands National Park, dolphins and whales kept popping out of the water to say hello. And perhaps to say “thanks” —without park protection, a lot of these areas wouldn’t be as well preserved. I’m currently plotting my trip to Alaska—I’m especially excited to visit some of that coastline.

What’s next for you after this tour of America’s parks?

I’m so focused on where I’m headed next week, I haven’t thought much about next year. This is going to be hard year to top. A tour of theme parks? Trailer parks? Office parks? We’ll see…

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