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current topic NPS in Alaska Before 1972


Response to ANCSA, 1971-1973


NPS in Alaska, 1973-1980





The National Park Service and the
Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980: Administrative History

Chapter One:
The National Park Service in Alaska Before 1972
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B. NPS Administration in Alaska, 1916-1950

Vandalism to nationally significant resources moved President William Howard Taft to proclaim Sitka National Monument. Yet, when he did so, no effective administrative machinery existed within the Department of the Interior for managing and protecting the national monuments. [26] No individual or office within the department was responsible for the existing national parks. Although a certain general responsibility for administering the national monuments under the Interior Department had devolved upon the General Land Office (later Bureau of Land Management) the lack of funds prohibited any effective management. Year after year Congress refused to appropriate anything for managing the monuments, and when it finally did in 1916, the amount was only $3,509 to be divided among nineteen monuments. The result was that before 1916 no effective preservation or restoration work could be undertaken at the monuments, and what supervision existed had not "prevented vandalism, unauthorized exploration, or spoliation." [27]

After the newly-created National Park Service took control of the national parks and monuments under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior in 1917, a custodian, W. Merrill of Sitka, was appointed to oversee Sitka National Monument. [28] Over the next several years the Service began to make some much needed repairs there. It concluded an agreement with the Alaska Road Commission to do the work, and allotted $1,000 in 1918 and $1,102.48 in 1924 for improvement projects that included repair and painting of the totem poles. [29]

In general it is apparent, however, that creation of an organization with specific responsibility for administering the national parks and monuments had a much lesser effect on the Alaskan areas than it did elsewhere. Distance to Alaska was a significant factor. Successive NPS directors did visit Alaska, beginning with NPS Director Mather's 1926 trip. [30] However, Alaska was reached primarily by boat before the 1940s. Even after that, the areas were too far, too remote, and communication was too difficult to have had a significant impact on policymakers in Washington, D.C.

Organization of the Service was not something that could overcome this problem. Until 1937 superintendents and custodians reported directly to the Washington Office. After the Service established regional offices in that year, managers of the Alaska areas were responsible to the regional director in San Francisco, something that did little to overcome the essential problem of distance. [31] Following World War II, several people, including Director Newton B. Drury, indicated a growing concern over the problem of communication between the central offices and park managers in Alaska, and recommended establishing a NPS Alaska Office in Juneau. [32] Such suggestions were ignored until the mid-1960s, however.

Management priorities established by the Service in the 1920s and 1930s worked to the disadvantage of the Alaska areas as well. NPS Director Mather was determined to guarantee the national parks a firm place in the nation's consciousness. [33] One way to do so was an extensive publicity campaign to make the parks more well known. A second was to make park development a management priority in an effort to make the areas more pleasant places to visit. This meant quite simply that funds would go primarily to areas with high visibility and high visitation. The Alaskan areas had neither. Generally, they had the lowest visitation in the system. Mt. McKinley did not record a purely park visit until 1922, although many people with mining business at Kantishna traveled through the park. [34] From 1921 to 1930, Mt. McKinley reported 4,284 visitors. During that time only 32 people reportedly visited Katmai. By way of comparison, Yellowstone National Park reported a total of 1,724,880 visitors during those years. [35]

In the 1930s energies within the Service were expended, in large part, in dealing with the myriad recovery programs in which it was involved, incorporating the more than sixty areas that came into the system through the reorganization of 1933, and in dealing with a variety of new kinds of areas established during that decade. [36] Although a detachment of 200 Civilian Conservation Corps men arrived at McKinley in 1938, emphasis remained on areas with highest visitation in the "Lower 48" and Alaska was again forgotten. [37]

The attitude of Congress with respect to funding contributed to the difficulty. For the greater part of the period before the 1950s and 1960s, and this included the 1930s, when the Service was the recipient of considerable emergency largesse, Congress steadfastly refused to provide much more than minimal funding for Alaskan areas. The legislation for Mt. McKinley, in fact, included a stipulation that prohibited expenditures of more than $10,000 for maintenance, "unless expressly authorized by law." [38] When the bill passed, moreover, Congress provided no funds for administering the area. It was not until 1921, nearly five years after the park was established, that NPS Director Mather was able to announce that an $8,000 appropriation had allowed the Service to appoint a superintendent and take administrative control of the area. [39] Funding difficulties were not confined to Alaska, it must be made clear. The Service, until the 1930s and again afterwards, generally had difficulty obtaining adequate funding for managing parks and monuments everywhere.

This is not to ignore the sometimes heroic efforts of the people on the ground in Alaska. Nor is it to suggest that nothing was accomplished in the first several decades of National Park Service administration there. Between 1922 and 1929 a total of $126,860 was appropriated for Mt. McKinley National Park. [40] This was spent not only for normal administrative and protective activities, but included such things as construction of a headquarters complex between 1925 and 1929, ranger patrol cabins, a trail from McKinley Park Station to Muldrow Glacier, and beginnings of a road that would, when completed in 1938, extend eighty-nine miles from McKinley Park Station to Wonder Lake. [41] In the mid 1930s the Service played a major role in construction of a hotel at the park. Designed and constructed under the supervision of Service personnel, the hotel was completed at a cost of $350,000. [42]

Administration of Katmai and Glacier Bay, and later, Old Kasaan national monuments proved to be another story. Funding for national monuments everywhere was always more precarious than it was for the parks. In 1930, for example, only $46,000 was appropriated for protection of all thirty-two national monuments. [43] An added problem was the fact that although the distinction between parks and monuments was often vague, in terms of administration they were different. National parks were to be developed in order that they might become "resort[s] for the people to enjoy," while monuments were areas of national significance to be protected from encroachment. [44] This distinction remained sharper in Alaska for a longer period than it did elsewhere. Added to the factors already discussed, the result was near total neglect of Katmai, Glacier Bay, and Old Kasaan national monuments before 1950. In 1920, in response to an inquiry regarding Katmai, for example, Arno Cammerer wrote that the Service had no immediate plans to develop the area, and because of the lack of adequate transportation, had no representative on location. [45] Twenty years later, when NPS employees Frank T. Been and Victor Cahalane made an inspection tour of Katmai, the situation remained unchanged. Twenty-two years after Katmai was established, Been wrote, "so far as I can determine I am the first National Park Service officer who has visited" the area. [46] In 1963 Lowell Sumner wrote, that as late as 1948 the Service had still not made even the most rudimentary reconnaissance of the area. [47] Similarly, when Been and Earl Trager visited Glacier Bay in 1939, they were apparently the first Park Service employees to have spent any time in the monument, and were among the first to have even visited the area. Although the purpose of their visit indicates an interest in establishing a presence in the area—they were to study possibilities and methods for making the area and its story available to the visiting public—nothing more was done, and the record indicates that Park Service officials visited the area only infrequently until spring 1950. [48]

Neglect had its most pronounced effect at Old Kasaan. There is little evidence to indicate that the U.S. Forest Service had done anything to protect the resources there during the period it managed the area. In 1921, in fact, that Service suggested transferring "old totem poles and Indian relics"—the very reason for existence of the monument—to Sitka National Monument. [49]

The Park Service assumed jurisdiction, but not management of the area in 1933. Until 1941 direct supervision rested with the Alaska Road Commission under an agreement with the NPS. This arrangement did nothing to reverse the deterioration of the area. No funds were ever expended on the area, and when an inspection was finally made in 1940, the area was so overgrown that walking was virtually impossible, graves were opened, artifacts stolen, and more than half of the totem poles were gone. [50]

In 1946, and again in 1954, the Service recommended the abolishment of the monument. The last time it did so in the recognition that the deterioration was irreversible. In 1955 Congress granted the request and abolished the monument. [51]

On June 8, 1940, Mt. McKinley National Park Superintendent Frank Been wrote bitterly:

It is hoped that funds will be provided so that the NPS will be able to administer the areas rather than have them continue as illustrations of apparent mismanagement or service indifference. [52]

Despite Been's concerns, neglect of the other Alaskan areas did not have so serious consequences as at old Kasaan. Congress' failure to appropriate funds for Mt. McKinley did allow hunting to go on far in excess of that contemplated in the law, a problem that was only partially mitigated by assistance from the overworked and undermanned territorial game wardens. When Frank Been visited Katmai in 1940, he observed that hunting and trapping was carried on there "with the same freedom as . . . in the public domain." Excavation of pumice from beaches at Katmai occurred in the late 1940s and early 1950s. [53]

Generally, however, because of the remoteness of the areas and the relative lack of population and developmental pressures, administrative neglect of the Alaska parks and monuments was not as serious as it might have been. [54] External factors, not design, served to buffer the areas from serious and irreversible encroachment and damage.

However much Alaskans might oppose withdrawal of public lands by executive action, they were equally adamant, once those lands were withdrawn, that they should be developed and made available for use. Failure to more actively manage the Alaska parks and monuments did serve to reinforce perceptions in Alaska that the federal government was insensitive to the needs of Alaskans. [55] It created a situation, moreover, in which politicians could seriously propose abolishing an area of the unquestioned significance of Katmai National Monument. [56] It did serious damage to the image of the National Park Service in Alaska, and made it more difficult, into the 1970s, for the Service to muster support for its efforts to bring additional areas in Alaska into the National Park System. [57]

National Park Service officials were not unaware of the problems the Service faced in Alaska. From the mid-1940s, successive directors did try to improve the situation there. These efforts, which were often the result of urging from NPS officials who had a special interest in Alaska, were sporadic until the mid-1950s and did not, until the mid-1960s, result in any reappraisal of the Service' s role in Alaska.

Until the 1950s, moreover, these efforts to improve administration of the Alaskan areas, such as that Director Newton B. Drury recommended in 1946, had little apparent effect on the situation there. [58]

Chapter One continues with...
National Park Service Studies in Alaska, 1937-1946


Last Modified: Tues, Jan 9 2001 10:08 am PDT

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