Mount Denali and the Alaska Range, reflected in Reflection Pond
A world-famous view: Mount Denali and the Alaska Range, reflected in the waters of Reflection Pond (Photo: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

The cre­ation and expan­sion of nation­al parks in Alas­ka drew howls from the state’s polit­i­cal lead­ers dur­ing the lead-up to the Alas­ka Nation­al Inter­ests Lands Con­ser­va­tion Act of 1980 (ANILCA). Park­lands would become a domain of “the effete rich,” snarled the late Sen­a­tor Ted Stevens, R‑Alaska, with mil­lions of acres giv­en over to what recent­ly deceased Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Don Young, R‑Alaska, described as “jet-set­ting hip­pie backpackers.”

Min­ers, log­gers and oil com­pa­nies want­ed pub­lic lands of the 49th State for pri­vate exploita­tion with­out restraint. They failed to com­pre­hend a com­pet­ing val­ue. As put by Franklin D. Roo­sevelt: “There is noth­ing so Amer­i­can as our nation­al parks. The scenery and wildlife are native and the fun­da­men­tal idea behind the parks is native. It is, in brief, that the coun­try belongs to its people.”

Amer­i­cans, of all ages and back­grounds and in num­bers far beyond expec­ta­tions, have “dis­cov­ered” places pro­tect­ed by ANILCA.

South­east Alas­ka was once dri­ven by two giant pulp mills in Sit­ka and Ketchikan, with a third planned in Juneau. The mills are long gone. In 2019, the last pre-pan­dem­ic year, the econ­o­my was dri­ven by 1.3 mil­lion cruise ship pas­sen­gers, as well as fish­ing vis­its to Sit­ka and bear-watch­ing ven­tures to Admi­ral­ty Island.

Bumper stick­ers read­ing “Sier­ra Club: Kiss my Axe” sprout­ed in the coastal town of Seward, which resist­ed cre­ation of Kenai Fjords Nation­al Parks. The local econ­o­my has boomed as boat­loads of vis­i­tors head out to wit­ness marine mam­mals, tide­wa­ter glac­i­ers and a fas­ci­nat­ing array of bird life. Such was the new pros­per­i­ty that the city coun­cil rescind­ed its anti-ANIL­CA resolution.

We head­ed this month for Denali Nation­al Park, a Con­necti­cut-sized park and pre­serve cen­tered on the high­est moun­tain in North America.

Sunrise over Denali and the Alaska Range, shown with an inset of the park map
Nine­ty miles west of the park entrance is the Won­der Lake / Kan­tish­na area — the heart of Denali Nation­al Park. For­mer­ly acces­si­ble by the now-sev­ered Park Road, the area offers stun­ning views of the Alas­ka Range and Mount Denali, includ­ing the sun­rise depict­ed in this image. (Pho­tog­ra­phy by Andrew Vil­leneuve; graph­ics by the Nation­al Park Ser­vice’s Harpers Fer­ry Cen­ter, which cre­ates the icon­ic maps for the NPS’ park brochures.)

Sev­en years ago, Pres­i­dent Oba­ma rid the 20,320-foot peak of the name “Mount McKin­ley” and for­mal­ized its native name mean­ing “the high one.”

The remote Camp Denali retreat and nature cen­ter became more remote in August of 2021. Melt­ing per­mafrost on a cliff face called Pret­ty Rocks forced clo­sure at the 43-mile point of the restrict­ed nine­ty-two-mile-long most­ly grav­el road into the park. The closed por­tion of road is now a path­way for cari­bou escap­ing the muskeg and wolves seek­ing prey.

“Pret­ty Rocks is the poster child for melt­ing per­mafrost,” said Camp Denali co-own­er Simon Hamm, in an inter­view. “Over a decade, it melt­ed a cou­ple inch­es a year, then sev­er­al inch­es a month, and then sev­er­al inch­es a week.”

Until a bridge is built over the sink­ing slope – esti­mat­ed costs, up to $75 mil­lion — Camp Denali guests must be flown in, along with sup­plies for an oper­a­tion found­ed more than sev­en­ty years ago by pio­neer women bush pilots and Alas­ka con­ser­va­tion­ists Celia Hunter and Gin­ny Wood.

Pretty Rocks slide: An aerial view, August 2022
A close­up view of the Pret­ty Rocks slide, glimpsed from the air dur­ing a mid-August flight over the park. The slide prompt­ed the indef­i­nite clo­sure of the Park Road beyond the East Fork Riv­er on August 24th, 2021. (Pho­to: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

Our fel­low trav­el­ers sure didn’t meet the stereo­types of Ted Stevens and Don Young. We had three gen­er­a­tions of one fam­i­ly, din­ing com­pan­ions from the Mid­west and South, and a fel­low from Switzer­land: just an array of folks who dreamed of an Alas­ka adven­ture while liv­ing inter­est­ing lives.

We sure did get one.

Dur­ing one for­ay out into the near­by Tok­lat Riv­er val­ley, we encoun­tered no few­er than sev­en griz­zly bears. The bears were inhal­ing berries to fat­ten up for win­ter hiber­na­tion. The griz­zlies of Denali do not feast on salmon like their dis­tant kin­folk in Kat­mai Nation­al Park. They run 300–500 pounds, less than half the size of the bru­ins at Kat­mai or along the Cop­per Riv­er in Wrangell-St. Elias Nation­al Park.

A Denali grizzly bear
A mature female griz­zly bear takes a break from eat­ing berries in Denali Nation­al Park and Pre­serve to gaze at her sur­round­ings (Pho­to: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

The east end of Denali Park is get­ting a lit­tle crowd­ed dur­ing the three-month sum­mer sea­son. It’ll like­ly reach the pre-pan­dem­ic lev­el of 600,000 visitors.

Tour bus­es, going out on the open part of the park road, are crowded.

Com­mer­cial oper­a­tions take raft par­ties through the canyon of the Nenana Riv­er. Alas­ka native cor­po­ra­tions are own­ers and part­ners in tour oper­a­tions and in the Grande Denali and Denali Bluffs hotels.

I heard a lot of non­sense while report­ing ANILCA for the Seat­tle Post-Intel­li­gencer. The U.S. For­est Ser­vice claimed it was “devel­op­ing” South­east Alas­ka in build­ing log­ging roads where the return was five cents on the dollar.

And sell­ing eight hun­dred year-old trees for the price of a Big Mac.

Cari­bou alleged­ly loved pipelines. In words of Pres­i­dent George H.W. Bush: “You’ve got to shake them away with a stick. They’re all mak­ing love lying up against the pipeline and you got thou­sands of cari­bou up there.”

The forces that fought ANILCA are still around. They were thwart­ed by sup­port for pro­tect­ing what U.S. Inte­ri­or Sec­re­tary Cecil Andrus described as “the crown jew­els” of Alas­ka. But devel­op­ment schemes run deep, even if they run dry.

The sug­ges­tion here: If you love the wild Alas­ka, if you appre­ci­ate its parks and wilder­ness, do some­thing to defend it. Here are some points of involvement:

The Peb­ble Mine: A Van­cou­ver-based min­ing com­pa­ny is still pur­su­ing plans to cre­ate a mas­sive open pit cop­per and gold mine between two of Bris­tol Bay’s main salmon spawn­ing streams. Bris­tol Bay sup­ports the world’s great­est salmon fish­ery, with a return this year of 78 mil­lion sockeye.

Under a strat­e­gy first per­fect­ed by Sen­a­tor Maria Cantwell, D‑Washington, and the EPA, the Biden Admin­is­tra­tion is seek­ing to block the project as a (mas­sive) vio­la­tion of the Clean Water Act.

Big min­ing com­pa­nies, Anglo-Amer­i­can and Rio Tin­to, long ago pulled out, but pro­mot­ers claimed this month to have found anoth­er deep pock­et­ed investor.

The pro­posed mine is between two “crown jew­els”, Kat­mai and Lake Clark Nation­al Parks. If you val­ue salmon and wild­ness, write to your lawmaker.

Our eco­nom­ic stakes? Thou­sands of North­west­ern­ers fish in Bris­tol Bay, or work in its can­ner­ies, or par­tic­i­pate in its sports fishery.

The Arc­tic Refuge: A back­door pro­vi­sion in Repub­li­cans’ 2017 tax give­away to the wealthy opened the Coastal Plain of the nine­teen mil­lion-acre Refuge to oil and gas leas­ing. The Plain is the unspoiled, majes­tic, and wild calv­ing grounds for the 100,000-plus ani­mals of the Por­cu­pine Cari­bou Herd.

The Trump regime sought to sell leas­es with­in days of leav­ing office. With an eye to pub­lic opin­ion, and the eco­nom­ics of Arc­tic devel­op­ment, big oil com­pa­nies bailed out. The Biden admin­is­tra­tion is admin­is­tra­tive­ly work­ing to stop oil drilling. Repub­li­cans in Con­gress have tak­en up Sarah Palin’s old slo­gan: “Drill, baby, drill.”

The Wil­low Project: Cono­coPhillips has a major oil devel­op­ment pro­posed on the North Slope, just west of Prud­hoe Bay. It would boost Alaska’s petro econ­o­my at a time when Prud­hoe Bay pro­jec­tion is on the decline. Cono­coPhillips is even pledg­ing mea­sures to keep per­mafrost from melt­ing, and to min­i­mize its footprint.

The down­side: Arc­tic Alas­ka is warn­ing faster than any oth­er place on the plan­et. The Arc­tic icepack is shrink­ing, endan­ger­ing polar bears. Bering Sea storms pum­mel coastal vil­lages with­out pro­tec­tion of the ice. Melt­ing per­mafrost is releas­ing methane, a lethal green­house gas, into the atmosphere.

The Biden-Har­ris admin­is­tra­tion faces a final deci­sion on Willow.

A recent envi­ron­men­tal impact state­ment hints at approval. The project is cham­pi­oned by Sen­a­tor Lisa Murkows­ki, R‑Alaska.

Ton­gass Nation­al For­est: At six­teen mil­lion acres, the Ton­gass in South­east Alas­ka is America’s largest nation­al forest.

It is the world’s largest intact tem­per­ate rain­for­est, a major source of car­bon diox­ide seques­tra­tion and sus­tain­er of salmon runs.

A road­less rule, enact­ed by the Clin­ton Admin­is­tra­tion, stopped the log­ging of val­ley-bot­tom old growth forests, keys to the ecosys­tem of the Ton­gass. The indus­try rav­aged these trees in days gone by, par­tic­u­lar­ly on Prince of Wales Island. Ancient cathe­dral trees were used to make pulp. The Trump regime sought uni­lat­er­al­ly to repeal the rule. Pres­i­dent Biden is pledged to its restoration.

The Denali Park road: The cost will be steep, and there’s an allure to let­ting ani­mals use the road. Still, pub­lic pres­sure was key to the 1980 act that tripled the size of Denali Nation­al Park and Pre­serve to 6 mil­lion acres.

The west end of the road is where you can see Mount Denali in all its glo­ry, with the 14,000’ high Wick­er­sham Wall in your face.

Ansel Adams took a sem­i­nal pho­to of Denali from above Won­der Lake, where NPI’s Exec­u­tive Direc­tor Andrew Vil­leneuve was tak­ing one of the pho­tos that accom­pa­nies this piece with a set of pro lens­es made by Olympus.

Mount Denali and the Alaska Range, reflected in Reflection Pond
A world-famous view: Mount Denali and the Alas­ka Range, reflect­ed in the waters of Reflec­tion Pond (Pho­to: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

Film­ing his PBS series on nation­al parks, doc­u­men­tary film­mak­er Ken Burns expe­ri­enced (in his words) a “super holy $#!& moment” watch­ing the Alas­ka Range bathed in late day gold­en sun­light. Such expe­ri­ences sus­tain the park expe­ri­ence — an expe­ri­ence that Amer­i­ca gave the world.

Above all, cli­mate dam­age is strik­ing quick­ly in the north. It is a threat to earth, water, ice and ecosys­tems. We ignore it at our per­il, and par­tic­u­lar­ly the per­il it will post to the next and future generations.

About the author

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

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One reply on ““For the benefit and enjoyment of all of the people”: Denali-inspired reflections on the necessity of conservation’s future in Alaska”

  1. Sav­ing some­thing for future Amer­i­cans is of utter impor­tance. Nation­al parks are vital in the fight against cli­mate change.

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