Alaska’s national parks – once a source of much controversy – continue to power 49th state tourism in a big way, but economic returns remain largely limited to a few areas of the state as the overwhelming majority of visitors continue to flock to the old, pre-1980 parks, according to new data.
Park visitation hit a record 2.9 million, the National Park Service announced Friday. About 75 percent of the traffic, however, focused on three easily accessible parks.
All those parks predate the politically divisive Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) of 1980 as does the Sitka National Historical Park, which was visited by more than 197,000.
The crowning achievement of President Jimmy Carter, ANILCA protected more than 100 million acres of the 49th state as parks, preserve and national wildlife refuges. Overnight, it more than doubled the size of the national park system.
Some hoped the legislation would help spread tourism jobs around Alaska, but that doesn’t appear to have happened. Almost 40 years after ANILCA’s passage, only one of the legislation’s new parks is attracting more than 100,000 visitors a year.
That park is Kenai Fjords, 125 miles south of the state’s largest city at the end of the Seward Highway. The road accessible park has been a big boom for the Resurrection Bay community of Seward.
Tourism to the park was up about 6 percent to more than 321,000 people last year, according to the Park Service. For a town of less than 3,000, 321,000 people is a horde, though it amounts to only about a week’s traffic in July in Yellowstone National Park.
Still, the park is for Seward fulfilling the promise of tourism that came with ANILCA no matter how much the community loathed the legislation.
“Assurances from the (Alaska) governor and the National Park Service that the newly protected areas would generate new revenue from tourists fell on deaf ears in Seward,” filmmaker Ken Burns noted in a history of America’s parks. “Twice, the city council passed resolutions condemning the creation of a national (reserve)….”
Five years after Carter signed ANILCA, Burns added, “tourists visits had become a crucial part of Seward’s economy. The local Chamber of Commerce began putting the town’s proximity to Kenai Fjords at the top of its marketing material, and the City Council officially rescinded its two previous resolutions opposing the park’s creation. A few years later, they asked that the national park at their doorstep be expanded.”
Recreation industries – primarily day-cruise boats and restaurants – were the biggest beneficiaries in the community of 2,800 at the end of a nationally recognized scenic highway – itself a world-class drive – only a few hours from Anchorage.
Kenai Fjords attracts primarily day visitors, and it shows in the economic footprint of the park. About 265 miles north of Anchorage, Denali attracts about twice as many people as Kenai Fjords but in 2017 generated almost 12 times the economic output – $924 million worth, according to the Parks study.
Butts in the beds
Kenai is a tourism stop. Denali is a tourism destination.
The so-called “Glitter Gulch” strip of hotels, restaurants and bars in a scenic canyon along the George Parks Highway becomes its own, busy city in the summer. The hotels generate enough revenue from bed taxes to entirely fund the budget of the massive (nearly 13,000 square miles) but little-peopled (population 2,074) Denali Borough.
Getting bodies in beds is clearly good business in the north. Glacier Bay attracts slightly more visitors than Denali, and generates only about a fifth of the economic output. The $168 million in business there is almost exactly twice that of Kenai Fjords, according to the Parks reports.
Most of the people who visit Glacier Bay do so on cruiseships. Most of the people who visit Kenai Fjords drive there to enjoy day cruises as did then President Barack Obama in 2015.
The Klondike Gold Rush park that plugs the streets of the small town of Skagway with most of those 1 million summer cruiseship visitors generates $238 million in local economic output, according to the Park Service, again a fraction of the Denali business.
Skagway was the point of entry for the Klondike Gold Rush of the Yukon Territory, Canada, to the east at the tail end of the 1890s. The park was established in 1976 to protect historic buildings that date to gold rush days and commemorate a global historic event. Klondike is Alaska’s only theme park, and the youngest of the pre-ANILCA parks.
Denali was created in 1917. Glacier Bay began as a “national monument” managed by the park service eight years later. Tourism started early in both parks but remained in the tens of thousands of people per year until the environmental movement began in the 1970s.
Between 1970 and 1975, with the opening of the Parks Highway, visitation to Denali almost quadrupled, and it has been on a steadily upward trajectory ever since. Glacier Bay began to ramp up a few years later, and then exploded into the 1990s as cruiseship companies began to discover the beauty of Alaska.
With the passage of ANILCA, some in Alaska hoped the love of Americans for their national parks would begin to spill over into economically struggling rural Alaska.
As of the present, that hasn’t happened.
The easily accessible parks have steadily grown while visitation at remote Alaska parks remains low to non-existent. There are plenty of reasons why.
Getting to many of the parks requires costly air transport, and once in them there are few places to stay, unless you camp, and it is often hard to get around. But there might be more to it than that because even the more accessible of these parks generate little business.
The 13.2-million-acre Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve east of Anchorage can be reached via gravel roads that penetrate its vast wilderness from the north and the east. A wilderness area bigger than Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park, and Switzerland combined, it offers a wide variety of opportunities for hiking, glacier hiking, mountaineering, river rafting, flight seeing, mountain biking and more.
Last year it attracted but 79,540 visitors, according to the Park Service. That was better than the barely over 68,000 the year before, but below the 2015 peak of more than 80,000.
The park’s economic output as reported in 2017 was, however, a healthy $153 million despite the low visitation. It generated an economic bang more than 15 times that of the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve to the north.
Yukon-Charley is something of an oddity in Alaska, a truly remote park fairly easily visited. The park boundary starts 12 miles downstream from Eagle at the end of Alaska’s Taylor Highway. It is possible to rent a canoe in Eagle for $385 and float the Yukon for 160 miles downstream to Circle at the end of the Steese Highway.
Eagle Canoe Rentals will even help arrange ground transportation back to Fairbanks to help a visitor cut costs. It’s a pretty easy, five- to six-day float down a river that rolls along at five to eight mph.
But visitors best know a thing or two about wilderness survival. Fairbanks author Dan O’Neill wrote about a book about the area. It’s title says it all: “A Land Gone Lonesome.”
It might be that the bigness and the wildness of it all scares people away. The Park Service reported 1,272 visitors last year, a 33 percent increase over the year before made big only because of the small showing in 2016.
One-thousand, three-hundred people aren’t many even if they all converged to float the Yukon over the course of one week. Almost 10 times as many arrive at Yellowstone every day in July.
And not all those Yukon-Charley visitors come in the summer. The 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race from Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada to Fairbanks goes through the park in the winter. So some visitors come then.
On the other hand, 1,300 is a mob compared to the handful of people who visit the Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve on the Alaska Peninsula.
One of the smaller of Alaska’s national park units, it blankets more than 600,000 acres around the caldera of what once was Mount Aniakchak. A 7,000-foot mountain volcano, Aniakchak exploded an estimated 3,700 years ago and caved in.
The remnants of the mountain now surround a valley that contains the headwaters of the Aniakchak River at Surprise Lake. The Park Service bills the park as “No Lines, No Waiting!”
And then does its best to scare visitors away from visiting: “The weather on Aniakchak is severe; life-threatening conditions can develop rapidly. Extremely violent winds in the caldera, particularly near ‘The Gates,’ can shred tents and prevent air rescue. A hefty budget and pre-tested skills and gear are absolutely necessary.”
The warning appears to be working. The park’s economic output was valued at a mere $112,000 in 2017.
It – like the Wrangell-St. Elias, Yukon Charley, the parks of Northwest Alaska and other 1980 park withdrawals in Alaska – has turned out be more about the federal agency’s mission “to preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system” than its mission to do so “for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”
Whether that will ever change remains to be seen. Park visitation in Alaska, as park visitation everywhere in a country that loves its automobiles, seems strongly tied to road accessibility, and Alaskans are deeply divided on whether more roads should be built in the 49th state.
And they can debate at length whether roads will grow tourism or stifle it in the land known for its big wild.