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 Such was the new prosperity that the city council rescinded its anti-ANILCA resolution.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.