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Recall that Congress had rested on its laurels after enactment of the park legislation in 1917. For more than 4 years McKinley was a park in name only—unfunded, unmanned, unprotected. Finally—after many petitions from conservationists, the Governor of Alaska, and Interior Department and NPS officials—Congress appropriated $8,000 for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 1921. Increased market hunting and poaching, paired with the threat posed by the approaching railroad, had jolted Congress to take the first step in carrying out its own statutory mandate: to preserve the park as a game refuge.

By then the name of Henry P. Karstens headed the list of those being considered for the job of park superintendent. Karstens had broached the subject in a 1918 letter to NPS Assistant Director Horace Albright. This was the letter, solicited by Albright, that established Charles Sheldon as the originator of the Mount McKinley National Park idea. In describing Sheldon's concept of a park that would protect Denali's game, Karstens stated: "One thing which brings it home to me is, Sheldon promised to assist me to get the Wardenship if it went through." [1]

Henry P. (Harry) Karstens, first park superintendent, 1921-1928. Charles Sheldon Collection, UAF.

In this same letter Karstens expressed irritation with Alaska Governor Thomas Riggs, who " . . . tried to tell me that he was the man that proposed the park." Not only did Riggs disbelieve Karstens as to Sheldon's role, he also tried to talk the Sourdough out of applying for the superintendent job. Karstens continued:

I was thinking it over for a day or so when I found out that Mr. Raybourn [W.B. Reaburn], one of Riggs' men [on the Alaska-Canadian Boundary Survey] had made a special trip out to Washington to put in his application. Raybourn is a fine man & if I cannot have the position I hope he gets it.

Almost 3 years later Governor Riggs still favored Reaburn for the job. At the request of NPS Director Stephen T. Mather, Riggs evaluated candidates for the superintendency, dismissing all but Reaburn and Karstens from consideration. His profile of Karstens was prophetic:

Harry Karstens is an excellent man and perhaps deserves consideration for the fact that he made possible the ascent of Mt. McKinley for the Stuck party. He is a good woodsman and thoroughly energetic. If it were not for Reaburn I should give serious consideration to Karstens. He is not, however, any where near the equal of Reaburn, as he is very independent and would be apt to tangle up with the authorities the first time there should come a little disagreement. In the appointment of Reaburn I know that you would make no mistake, whereas if Karstens should be appointed there might at times be friction not only with your office but with visitors to the park. I know that Charlie Sheldon will go to the mat for Karstens and if I were in Sheldon's place I would do the same thing. [2]

Mather noted with concern the governor's fears that the feisty Karstens would cause problems for the park and the Service. But Charles Sheldon's previous sponsorship of Karstens had already elicited Mather's all but unbreakable commitment to the Founding Father that "There is no question in my mind about Karstens being the man for the place . . . ." [3]

Governor Riggs certainly suspected that such a commitment was already made, for Mather had earlier told him of Sheldon's high recommendation of Karstens for the pioneer superintendency. [4]

As Karstens' 7-1/2-year administration of the park progressed, Mather would have ample reason for rueful pondering of Riggs' warning. Karstens' superintendency would fall into two arenas: 1) the true pioneering of a wild and undeveloped park—in which he excelled, and 2) the bureaucratic and public-official aspect—in which Karstens' direct-action approach often produced conflict at the park and distress among his Washington Office mentors who were trying to coach him along the path of prudence.

In the early years, with the focus on dog-team patrols and the hewing and laying of logs for park buildings, Karstens' rough-and-ready manner fit the park's needs like a glove. Later, when the finesse skills of interagency cooperation, resolution of disputes with park neighbors, and fiscal and personnel management became the paramount needs, Karstens—despite his own earnest efforts and the sympathetic counseling of Assistant Director Arno B. Cammerer—could only partially make the transition.

Nor were Karstens' troubles entirely of his own making. There were some hard cases out there, people who practiced calculated provocation to bring out the old Sourdough in him. After an explosion, they would write letters to Juneau and Washington officials misconstruing events and exaggerating Karstens' responses to them.

In sum, Karstens would be a pioneering hero part of the time and a man who outlasted his greatest usefulness part of the time. But he did well the two most important tasks of his charge: he all but stopped the poaching that was eroding the park's vulnerable wildlife, and he completed, largely with his own hands, the park's first-stage development that made it an operating unit of the National Park System. On balance, his strengths as pioneer superintendent outweighed his flaws as prudent bureaucrat.

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Last Updated: 04-Jan-2004