On Aug. 22, a public meeting took place in Denali National Park’s Murie Science and Learning Center with National Park Service personnel of Denali. The purpose of this meeting was a discussion of an extensive Park Service development proposal for Kantishna and Wonder Lake that will fundamentally change the visitor experience in both locations.
The proposal calls for as much as 80 miles of trails within Kantishna, expansion of Wonder Lake Campground, the establishment of backcountry and near-Kantishna airport campgrounds, creation of a Kantishna/Wonder Lake shuttle bus system, maintenance facilities, driver housing, parking, Kantishna rustic lodging (lean-to or bunkhouse) and year-round Park Service administration and housing.
Those who will primarily benefit from the infrastructure and trails at taxpayer expense will be a tiny segment of Denali visitors, the very wealthy who stay at the privately owned lodges in Kantishna.
Furthermore, it is my understanding that under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 that Kantishna inholders have primary access rights over concessionaire-operated tour and transit buses, which transport the vast majority of park visitors. According to the Park Service, the current number of buses already exceeds the Park Service Vehicle Management Plan, and when asked as to whether concession buses would be removed to be in compliance with the plan as Kantishna inholder buses are added, they didn’t answer.
I also asked about the Park Service’s current maintenance backlog, and chief of science Dave Schirokauer responded that it stands at $50 million. One has to wonder, if you cannot maintain your current level of infrastructure, how does it make any sense to create even more?
No environmental or short- or long-term health impact studies to visitors have been completed of the naturally occurring (according to the Park Service, in high amounts) of arsenic and antimony in the streams, soil and dust of Kantishna.
And like a guillotine hanging over the park’s access is the melting permafrost of Pretty Rocks at Mile 45 of the Park Road. According to Park Service geologist Denny Caps, Pretty Rocks is moving eight-tenths of an inch each day and moved 24 to 25 feet between September 2018 and April 2019, and its pattern has been to double its movement. This summer, Denny told me that we will be in serious trouble if it doubles again to 50 feet of movement by next April. See bit.ly/2AW1oMY.
Additionally, there are 140 other significant Park Road issues that are becoming more threatening due to climate change. How does it make any sense to develop Kantishna if you can’t reach it due to Pretty Rocks failing and other increasing land or mud slides?
The Park Service personnel state that they want specific public comments on specific aspects of the proposal and that general comments as to whether someone likes or dislikes the project isn’t good enough. While specifics are important, making this type of requirement increases the complexity of the comments as well as is significantly time consuming, which will most likely discourage or reduce public participation.
Denali Superintendent Don Striker, who is now Park Service interim regional director, is solely responsible for this proposal and he was absent from the meeting. He wasn’t there to listen to the public’s concerns or questions or justify his proposal to the public.
Furthermore, is there a conflict of interest as to Mr. Striker having influence over his own proposal, which he made as park superintendent?
More public meetings are needed and should be held in a variety of communities with Mr. Striker attending each one and answering questions from the public.
Denali isn’t about reducing visitors to bare numbers and devaluing the park to a mere revenue generator; it is about creating and maintaining a high quality visitor experience where visitors can experience a spectacular landscape with a variety of wildlife species and have a wilderness experience. It is where visitors on four- to 12-hour bus rides or multi-day visits can gain insights into Denali’s wilderness and wildlife and take home memories that will last them a lifetime.
In my 33 years in Denali, I have not witnessed a more destructive proposal from the Park Service to the natural ambiance, quiet, wilderness qualities, access, visitor experience and the Park Service mandates of preservation and visitor enjoyment.
Public comments can be submitted until Oct. 31. More information at bit.ly/2MkwR0I.
Bill Watkins has worked for the past 33 years, with 30 years as a driver/naturalist, for the Denali National Park concessionaire and currently works as a Tundra Wilderness Tour driver.