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Meeting provides Denali-area subsistence users a voice

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Posted: Sunday, March 7, 2010 1:45 pm | Updated: 12:55 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

LAKE MINCHUMINA - I think the Denali Subsistence Resource Commission meeting was first proposed to be held in Minchumina about 15 years ago.

After its formation following 1980 additions to Denali National Park, the SRC met twice a year, usually in the Healy-Cantwell area.

The Commission represents Minchumina, Telida and Nikolai as well as Cantwell and other qualified subsistence users of Denali National Park and Preserve, but unless they were members, residents of those bush areas never had the opportunity to testify or listen in.

Unfortunately, some of the same factors keeping those bush residents from attending deterred holding an off-road meeting: the expense and complexity of flying members and park personnel, too much travel time, and the possibility of bad weather causing cancellation of the meeting or the stranding of members in the bush should planes not be able to fly.

(Of course, all that applied to those of us who had to fly in to most meetings, but we are used to it.) This February, after many crazed phone calls, complex arrangements, frantic consultations and tearing of hair, Denali Park’s Amy Craver pulled it all together. The Minchumina meeting was on!

Commission member Paul Starr arrived first, coming in from Tanana by way of Fairbanks on the Tuesday mail plane. Having grown up near Minchumina, he wanted some time to see his place downriver and visit long-time friends. I am sure the familiar sight of the glistening snowcovered Alaska Range sent his spirit flying.

NPS pilot Colin Milone began flying people into Minchumina well before the Feb. 21 meeting date. Professional chef and Park employee Susan Wright came early to help local Carol Schlentner of Denali West Lodge set up and prepare to feed 25 or 30 people for the weekend. He flew in eight more attendees on Friday and Saturday.

Several people opted to ski the six miles across the snowy, windblown lake. Elder Ray Collins of McGrath lucked out, riding across with our dog team. Locals brought the rest on snow machines, with Josie and Tyler Hytry making several trips to and fro hauling people and gear. We were not surprised to hear comments on the professionalism of the two local young teenagers.

By Saturday evening, commission members Ray Collins and Jeff Burney of Cantwell had joined Paul Starr and local members Penny Green and myself, enough to form a quorum — barely. Amy Craver (Denali’s Subsistence Program Manager), Philip Hooge (Denali’s Assistant Superintendent for Resources, Science and Learning), Pat Owens (Denali wildlife biologist), rangers Scott Pariseau and Richard Moore, and Andrew Ackerman, social scientist for Denali, rounded out the official Park personnel.

Minchumina’s entire scattered community attended the Saturday potluck supper and many returned for Sunday’s meeting and second potluck.

Many, including Tom and Penny Green, Ray and Stella Wildrick, and Julie and me, have been in this area for decades. Dennis Hannan and the Hytry’s arrived in the 1980’s. Our part-time resident John Burns brought his experience not only as a trapper and fur buyer but a long-time Fish and Game biologist.

Tom and Penny’s son Steven often feels the call of home, so he puttered out from Fairbanks in his Taylorcraft with his fiancée, Dayna Norris. Even Mike and Nate Turner, Kantishna River trappers, flew in, landing on the lake in front of the Lodge. Another part-time resident, Dick Bishop, could not make it, but sent his concerns for us to share with the Park Service.

Saturday evening provided time for informal talk of trapping, berry-picking, flying and other topics of local interest, a conversation enlightening to park personnel. I heard joking complaints about how the food, from Susan’s gourmet spread to Carol’s whitefish and the local wild berry desserts was too good!

Although I have never been good at sitting through meetings, this one proved especially lively. What was the federal review of subsistence really about? Should subsistence users be allowed to collect shed antlers, old horns, plants and whatnot for sale? If so maybe we should limit it to the sale of handcrafts to prevent the collection of all shed antlers to sell raw to the overseas market. While NPS expressed concern about providing tourists with the opportunity to see shed antlers, we were more concerned with the minerals those antlers bring back to nutrient-poor soil.

And what’s the deal with my muskrat proposal? We need an open hunting season, but the presented proposal made it sound like ‘rats were an incidental catch, not “get‘em when they are worth getting.” I pulled out Richard Carroll’s great book and summarized his impressive account of 90 years ago when ‘rats were going for $4 apiece, a fortune in those days. With his wife and two tiny kids, Richard traveled by dog team from their home in Fort Yukon several hundred miles into the Old Crow flats in Canada to trap ‘rats on spring ice and then hunt them during break-up, finally returning home in late June or July with 1600 muskrat pelts. Not exactly an incidental hunt!

For the first time in the 30-year history of the “New Park,” local residents could mingle with park bigwigs and question Philip or Richard on the intricacies of park rules (“So, we can pick mushrooms to eat, but we can’t sell them?” “What the heck is a 13.440 permit and who can get one?”) On our own comfortable turf, we could greet them not just as remote rulers but as friends and notso- distant neighbors.

Although the Denali Park Service has, for the most part, succeeded in working well with subsistence users, we have had our share of problems. Issues take too long to resolve. Acquiring permits to replace trapping cabins, even structures that have been in use for decades but are now rotting away, takes ten years. Concerns were expressed about the complexity of the laws and how difficult it is to find out about them. We call the park when we need an answer, but that doesn’t help when we don’t know what the question is. Who’d have dreamt we needed a permit to use a chain saw? It took 20 years to learn about that one. What else don’t we know?

By the time everyone trickled out on Monday, not only had the commission hashed through the normal assortment of game regulations, exploding coyote populations, proposed marten studies, park concerns and wildlife updates, but local residents had voiced their own concerns and gotten a better feel for the park’s positions. Overall, I think everyone went home feeling the meeting was a success.

Now we need to give the folks at Telida and Nikolai their chance!

Miki Collins is a trapper who lives near Lake Minchumina.

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