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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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C. National Park Service Studies in Alaska, 1937-1946

Although the Service did not more actively manage the existing areas in Alaska before the 1960s, it nevertheless succeeded, over the years, in building a basic body of knowledge about Alaska and the park values there. Before the early 1950s, this did not result from any well-conceived program initiated by the Service itself, but resulted primarily from a number of proposals to set areas in Alaska aside as national parks and monuments. As often as not these proposals came from interested parties outside the Service.

Each proposal for inclusion of a new area in the National Park System, whether it came from within the Service or outside, required some kind of study. Although the Service and its supporters were unable to bring additional areas into the system before the 1970s, the result of their efforts would be the accumulation of a body of knowledge about Alaskan lands that, while by no means comprehensive, would provide a firm base of information on which to build when the Service did assume a more active role in Alaska.

A number of the areas suggested as potential national parks surfaced, in one way or another, time and again over the years. One such area was Admiralty Island in Southeast Alaska, proposed as early as 1928 as a national park to protect the Alaska brown bears that inhabited the area. [59] Park Service officials inspected the area in 1932, 1938, and again in 1942. Each time they concluded that while the island was an area of great beauty, it did not meet criteria necessary for inclusion in the National Park System. [60] Nevertheless, the issue was raised so many times that in 1963 Conrad L. Wirth wrote, in exasperation, "we have said 'no' on Admiralty more times, I believe, than there are . . . Alaska brown bears!" [61] Wirth exaggerated only slightly. Despite the negative reports, the issue was raised again in 1947, 1948, 1950, 1955, 1962, and would not be finally settled until 1977. [62]

A second area that received consideration again and again, but never found its way into the system was Lake George, an interesting self-dumping glacial lake located forty-four miles northeast of Anchorage. The area was first proposed in 1937. A 1939 NPS report indicated that, although Lake George was an interesting phenomenon, it lacked the national significance required for national park or monument status. Nevertheless, the Service studied Lake George in 1958, 1961, and 1967, when the Anchorage Times proposed park status for the area. The suggestion was rejected each time, but on July 26, 1968, Lake George did become the first national natural landmark in Alaska. [63]

More important, in that it did become part of the system, were efforts to include various portions of the Wrangell-Saint Elias Mountains region, an area along the Canadian border that contains some of the highest mountains in North America. [64] The Forest Service had recommended establishment of a national monument in the Wrangells as early as 1908, and Senator Lewis Schwellenback of Washington and Alaska Delegate Anthony Dimond proposed establishing an international park on the Alaska-Yukon-British Columbia border in 1937. Park Service interest in the Wrangell-St. Elias region, however, dates to 1938 when Ernest Gruening, then director of the Interior Department's Division of Territories and Island Possessions, suggested that the Service survey the Chitina Valley for possible inclusion in the system. [65]

In August of that year, Gruening, along with Harry J. Leik, superintendent of Mount McKinley National Park and NPS Chief of Forestry John Coffman, surveyed the area. They concluded that the area measured up to the very highest of national park standards, stating that "among our national parks, it would rate with the best, if in fact it would not even exceed the mountain scenery of existing national parks." [66] "Alaska Regional National Park" and "Panorama National Park" were two of the names suggested for the area roughly bounded by the Wrangell Mountains on the north, Chugach Mountains on the south, Copper River on the west, and Canadian border on the east. The new national park would have combined recreation, scenic values, and continued development—particularly mining.

In an addendum to the Coffman-Leik Report, Gruening proposed the immediate establishment of a 900-square-mile Kennicott National Monument, to include the Kennicott Glacier and Kennicott mine site. [67] By 1940 success for Gruening's proposal seemed certain when Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes forwarded a draft proclamation to President Roosevelt. Roosevelt refused, however, to sign the proclamation, citing "the emergency with which we are confronted." [68] Later that year, a negative study by Frank Been effectively killed the Kennicott National Monument proposal. [69]

A significant aspect of the Wrangell/Saint Elias proposal was continued interest, on both the part of Canadians and Americans, in creating a great international park in the area. This idea was first raised in 1938, came up again in 1944 in response to a Canadian withdrawal of some 10,000 square miles on their side of the border, and was implicit, or explicit, in various expressions of interest in the area raised in 1952, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967-68, and 1969-72, when the Service conducted intensive, but ultimately unsuccessful, negotiations with Canadian officials regarding establishment of an international park. [70]

Surveys of these, and other areas across Alaska—Mt. Shishaldin, Kenai, Amagat Island, for example—were of unquestionable importance in building a body of knowledge about Alaska. They were, however, piecemeal. The first opportunity to go beyond the narrow limits of a specific area was associated with the Alaska Military Highway (Alaska Highway). In 1942 the Service had been asked to provide technical comments on the proposed military highway. In 1943-44 Service personnel undertook a survey of the scenic and recreational potential of a forty-mile wide strip along the entire length of the highway in Alaska that had been withdrawn by Secretary Ickes in an effort to establish a common conservation approach with the Canadian government. [73] President Roosevelt authorized $50,000 for the project, and in June 1943 a four-man-team headed by Senior Land Planner Allyn P. Bursley began work on the project. [74]

In December 1944 Bursley and his group presented the results of their work, which included a survey of all roads in Alaska. While concluding that no areas along the military highway need be withdrawn for park purposes, the study team argued that the Federal Government, but not necessarily the National Park Service, had a responsibility for providing accommodations for visitors, and fostering travel in Alaska. To this end they proposed a broad plan that included interpretive signs, construction of overnight facilities along the highway, and a full-scale tourist facility at Mentasta Lake. [75]

Possibly the $4,472,000 estimated for carrying out the proposals proved prohibitive, but for whatever reason, nothing came of the survey team's proposals. The Department of the Interior did consider directing the Park Service to construct a model tourist facility in 1946, but no evidence to suggest this was accomplished was uncovered. [76]

Chapter One continues with...
A New Beginning: The NPS in Alaska, 1950-1960


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

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