“I don’t think there’s another place that equals Denali, an intact ecosystem containing more than 6 million acres of land changed only by the forces of nature.”
This ecological jewel is worth preserving
By STEVE MACDONALD
When we first spotted them they were just three specks of brown high on a mountainside. Our photographer, producer and I had been driving the park road for miles, hoping to spot wildlife to video for our upcoming news program on Denali National Park.
We were rewarded near the Toklat River. A grizzly bear and her two spring cubs were approaching. I hoped the bears would come closer for a better look, while calculating how long it would take to sprint to the news car if mother bear decided I was a threat to her babies.The bears walked along the mountainside above us, pausing to eat grasses they found. They didn’t seem bothered by our presence.The sow and cubs crossed the road and headed toward the river below. We lost sight of them in thick brush.
It’s exhilarating to glimpse life inside Denali National Park and sense the delicate balance between wildlife that live here and humans who want to experience this wild place. I don’t think there’s another place that equals Denali, an intact ecosystem containing more than 6 million acres of land changed only by the forces of nature. It’s a land of extremes. The fragile tundra provides food for so many animals. Glaciers and fierce winds scour Mount McKinley, the tallest peak in North America.
Harry Karstens and Don Sheldon witnessed these scenes when they first visited in 1906. Karstens, a guide, and Sheldon, a naturalist and hunter, came to study Dall sheep.
Karstens was concerned for their future. Market hunters were killing sheep to supply Kantishna gold camps with meat. Karstens worried even more sheep would be taken once workers began extending the railroad line to the area.
To protect Dall sheep, Sheldon and Karstens began pushing for the region to become a national park. In 1917, Congress approved creation of Mount McKinley National Park. The 2-million-acre park offered protection not only for Dall sheep, but all wildlife within its boundaries.The challenge was to provide access to the new park. In 1923, the Alaska Road Commission began constructing a 90-mile-long road through the heart of Denali.
Construction took 16 years. The road gave visitors a way to take in the scenery and provided access to Kantishna gold mines.
In 1980, Congress approved the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, tripling the size of the park, bringing Mount McKinley and the Kantishna mining area within its new boundaries and changing the name to Denali. Denali National Park became famous as a place where wildlife and wilderness flourish. For that reason, the park evolved into a popular visitor destination and economic engine for the state’s tourism industry. Today Denali National Park is undergoing a transformation that significantly affects how the park operates.
Most Denali visitors experience the park aboard tour buses that travel the road, so managers limited the number of vehicles allowed during summer.
Visitors want to see wildlife and biologists know too many vehicles will cause animals to shy away from the road.
In 1986, managers capped the number of buses, trucks and ranger vehicles at 10,512. Five years ago, the influx of visitors nearly exceeded that limit.
Park managers created a new vehicle-management plan based on science. They studied animal and human tolerance for traffic. Biologists used radio collars to learn traffic didn’t seem to bother bears along the road. Sheep, however, were more skittish.
Visitors have limits, too. They told park managers through surveys that too many buses stopped for wildlife viewing or rest stops diminished the Denali wilderness experience.Park managers for four years took in feedback from the public and the tourism industry before crafting the new plan, which goes into effect in 2014.
The main emphasis is on better bus scheduling. The goal is to have a 10-minute gap between buses. Biologists call it a “sheep gap.” The hope is wildlife will have more time to cross the road in peace. Park managers believe better time management will allow a 10 percent increase of bus traffic on the road, to meet future visitor demands.
Park officials say visitors shouldn’t notice any changes, and hope the new plan will preserve that delicate balance that makes Denali National Park such a treasured place. Steve MacDonald is special projects manager for KTUU Channel 2 News. The show featured “The 49th Report Denali: A Delicate Balance” on July 18, and special coverage is available online at ktuu.com and alaskamagazine.com.