Denali Thriving, Conservationists Say

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, July 23, 2003 (ENS) - Denali National Park and Preserve is in excellent condition and stands as a model for the protection of other national parks, according to a new report released today by the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA).

The pristine views of mountains and wildlife within the six million acre park and preserve attract some 300,000 visitors each year, the vast majority of which tour Denali via its bus system.

It is this controlled access to the park - combined with the fact that visits are largely limited by weather to a period between mid-May and mid-September - that has helped Denali retain its natural splendor, says NPCA's Alaska Regional Director Jim Stratton.

But a proposal to build a road or railroad through 60 miles of the park's north side remains a concern for conservationists, who fear that either would needlessly disrupt Denali's fragile ecosystem.

Stratton says the proposals are being driven by economic interests in Fairbanks who yearn for the financial benefits of more visitors using the Alaskan city as a launching point for a trip to Denali.

"The need for a road or railroad has not been demonstrated," Stratton told ENS. "There are many other needs [in Alaska] that are far more pressing than building a road to a place that already has a road to it." denali

Denali was first formed to protect the splendor of Mt. McKinley, North America's highest mountain. (Photo courtesy National Park Service)
The Park Service seems ambivalent about the north side route, which would bisect prime the wildlife habitat area for which the north addition to Denali was first proposed.

"We have said that it is feasible if you want to spend a whole lot of money," said Kris Fister, spokesperson for the Park's Service at Denali. "But there are better ways to improve access to the park and there are better ways to use that funding."

Fister said the Park Service is studying additional access on the south side of the park, but added that the current visitor transportation system has "not been maxxed out."

The concerns about possible road development in Denali landed it on the NPCA's 2003 list of America's Ten Most Endangered Parks, but Stratton says the organization believes the plans, which could cost as much as $200 million, could "sink under their own economic weight."

The report on Denali is part of NPCA's State of the Parks program, which the organization launched in 2000 to assess the health of national parks across the country. Denali is the eight park assessed by NPCA's program and the current conditions of Denali's overall natural resources received the highest score of any park NPCA has assessed to date.

NPCA's report finds that Denali continues to boast a rich native biodiversity and is relatively untouched by invasive species. Air quality is good, the park's rivers are clean, and wildlife thrives in ecosystems largely untouched by humanity.

The park is home a wide range of wildlife, including grizzly bears, caribou, wolves and Dall sheep, and centers around Mt. McKinley, North America's highest mountain.

First established as Mt. McKinley National Park in 1917, Denali's ecosystem was formed by the retreat of continental glaciers some 10,000 to 14,000 years ago. It was declared a Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations in 1976 and was expanded into the six million acre Denali National Park and Preserve in 1980.

Snowmobiling is allowed for "traditional activities" within the four million acres of the park added in 1980, but NPCA is concerned that an increasing number of snowmobilers are taking advantage of this for recreational purposes.

The problem is not as severe as what is being seen at Yellowstone National Park, Stratton says, but the numbers are growing.

"People who use snow machines as part of their rural life, we have no problem with that," he says. "But recreational use is something different." caribou

Many credit the controlled access to Denali as a major reason why visitors can see abundant wildlife, including caribou. (Photo courtesy NPCA)
Fister says that the Park Service currently has no means of counting the number of people who slip into the park for recreational snowmobiling, but acknowledged that anecdotal evidence indicates it is increasing.

The Park Service is trying to identify the concerns about recreational snowmobiling to incorporate into its new back country management plan, which should be out early next year, Fister told ENS.

The biggest surprise arising from NPCA's assessment, according to Stratton, is the need to protect the park's cultural history.

"When you think of Denali you just do not think archeology," Stratton said. "But it stands to reason - the same reason people go today to look at wildlife is the reason people went there 5,000 years ago to hunt wildlife."

Archaeological sites within Denali could hold clues to a better understanding of how and when the continent was populated, NPCA says. But the park does not have a full time archaeologist or adequate funding, according to NPCA, meaning that most sites remain unexamined, unprotected, and unappreciated by visitors.

The report also details that Denali does not have a full-time museum curator and therefore some 88 percent of the park's 340,000 archival documents, including historic photographs, are not processed and are inaccessible to researchers, staff, and park visitors.

These concerns arise from budget constraints that are systemic across the 388 units of the National Park system, which many believe has been chronically under funded for many years.

The fiscal year 2003 budget for Denali is $10.1 million - the same as the park received in 2002.

"The only way to keep Denali in superb condition is to directly confront threats to the park's majestic landscape and cultural treasures," said Jim Nations, vice president of NPCA's State of the Parks program. "If we do not, this icon park will no longer be an icon, and the experiences of thousands of visitors will suffer."

NPCA's report on Denali can be found at http://www.npca.org/stateoftheparks