With the climbing season on Mount Denali shut down for the year and visits to Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park and Preserve closed until at least July, the National Park Service has now prohibited use of the Denali Park Road.
The Tuesday announcement came only hours before Holland America Line, a pioneer in Alaska cruises which now employs 3,500 people in the state, announced it would not sail to the state or conduct land tours in Denali National Park and Preserve this year.
Gone are “all summer 2020 (trips) on Maasdam, Noordam, Oosterdam, Volendam and Westerdam and all Land+Sea Journeys that combine a cruise with an overland tour to Denali and the Yukon,” Cruise News reported. “The McKinley Chalet Resort, McKinley Explorer rail cars and tour motor coaches will not operate.”
At the same time, Princess Tours, another big player in the Alaska market, announced it would shutter its five wilderness lodges in the state as well, and cancel train and bus tours to Denali.
Holland America and Princess hotels just outside the entrance to Denali are the anchors for what has come to be known as “Glitter Gulch,” the Sunset Strip of the George Parks Highway that throbs with tourist activity in summer.
Bed taxes from Glitter Gulch hotels fund the entire budget of the sparsely populated Denali Borough. Guests from the hotels fill the buses that normally carry tourists into the park on a road on which access is strictly limited.
The Park Service has yet to announce a plan for summer buses due to start running May 20.
Though the agency set no date for reopening the road into one of the state’s top tourist attractions, agency spokesman Gerald Hitchcok said the road closure is not indefinite.
“We don’t have an expected date for lifting this closure since it is in support of state and federal guidance,” he emailed, “but there are many benchmarks for reevaluating its necessity. The state health mandates will be reevaluated for extension on April 21.”
The “necessity,” as defined by the park’s media statement today, was “to support recent health mandates issued by the state of Alaska, particularly Health Mandates #11 and #12, which require Alaskans ‘remain at their place of residence and practice social distancing’ and which prohibit ‘all in-state travel between communities … unless travel is to support critical infrastructure, or for critical personal needs’.”
The park’s action came a day after the Alaska Department of Fish and Game offered a significantly different interpretation of the same mandates.
“Although travel between communities is prohibited under the issued health mandates,” that agency said in a statement, “the public may still travel to fishing locations. When traveling to participate in sport or personal use fisheries that occur outside of their communities of residence, the public must follow these guidelines:
- Conduct your fishing activities as close to your home residence as possible;
- Local mandates may be authorized under Public Health Mandate 012 (ie. #12). Find out local mandates in communities through which you plan to travel and abide by them;
- Totally provision your trip from your community of origin. Don’t plan on buying food, drinks or even fuel (if possible) after you begin your trip and until you return home;
- Practice social distancing while sport or personal use fishing.
Fish and Game was lobbied heavily by sport-fishing interests who want fishing left open, according sources within the agency. The Park Service was lobbied by Healy residents worried about people from Fairbanks bringing COVID-19 to the community, although the main concern wasn’t really about the park road, said local resident Will Forsberg.
“Two things going on,” he messaged. “Lots of the usual Fairbanks residents driving south through Nenana, Healy and Cantwell to go snow machining at Broad Pass.
“Would have been fine except lots of them stop at Healy for gas and supplies and drop their germs all over everything in the store. Most of the locals here are wearing masks to protect the health of the store workers. So there was some concern when the recreational travelers did not wear masks. Fairbanks is a hot spot for COVID and there are plenty of stores there.
“The Denali Borough mayor already announced that most businesses are closed indefinitely and that seasonal workers should not come here now with the 14-day quarantine rule in effect. So why is the non- essential travel to go snow machining allowed?”
While the Parks’ action won’t stop that traffic, he said, it as seen by many as an effort to “support the local community by closing it down to discourage travel from other communities. Second thing, (the) Park Service measured a 16-foot drop in the ‘slump’ (at Polychrome Pass) just over the course of the winter.
“They have hired a contractor to haul gravel and fill the slump back in beginning this week. They didn’t want recreation travelers out there getting in the way. A lot of people do drive out there to ski, bike, run dogs, etc. There is some question whether the road will be safe enough to use this summer. They have been holding off closing the Park entirely for national political reasons, but for now the local considerations seemed more important.”
Home to fewer than 2,500 people largely isolated in widely scattered residences, the Denali Borough has yet to record a COVID-19 case, but four people from the area are reported to have been tested because of possible symptoms.
As in many COVID-19 places outside of Alaska’s two main urban centers, fears of the pandemic disease are running high in the area. Some are reported to have talked about blocking the Parks Highway to put some teeth in the state ban on unnecessary travel.