Alaska's Denali Park Faces Growth Issues

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

TAKASHI RYUZOJI traveled from Nagano, Japan, to hole up in a tiny tent and wait patiently through chilly days of pouring rain and swarming mosquitoes for a glimpse of North America's tallest peak.

"I expect to see Mt. McKinley," he said, holding his hands like a clicking camera and standing, sheltered from the rain, at a campground picnic area by Wonder Lake. "Hopefully, tonight or tomorrow. I'm still waiting. I met a Japanese friend last week and he was waiting the whole week to see Mt. McKinley."

The mighty 20,320-foot mountain known locally as Denali, the Athabascan Indian name meaning "The High One," may be Alaska's most powerful magnet. More than half of the tourists who flock to Alaska each year come to Denali National Park, a Massachusetts-sized reserve marking its 75th anniversary this year. Visitation to the 6 million-acre park has grown from 216,341 in 1980 to 558,870 in 1991.

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Unlike other National Park system "crown jewels," Denali enforces strict access limitations. Private vehicles are largely banned from all but the first 14 miles of the park's sole road; most visitors travel in buses provided by the Park Service or a concessionaire. Hikers need permits to explore the back country's trailless tundra and photographers need permits to get close shots of the bears, moose, caribou, sheep, and wolves.

Demands for more buses are likely to go unheeded. Park officials say the road is handling all the buses it can - over 2,000 a year. More buses would harm the tourists' experience, the animals' migration, and the balance of one of the world's last self-regulating wildlife populations, they say.

"Sitting on a bus with 30 other people watching a grizzly bear is a neat experience," Denali National Park Superintendent Russ Berry said. "Two buses looking at a grizzly bear is OK. How about five buses? When do you feel like you're on a subway in New York City and not in a wilderness?"

Despite the inconveniences, the rustic state of existing facilities and the clouds that frequently obscure McKinley, tourists tend to endorse Denali's restrictions. "We are from California, and Yosemite has been ruined. I think now they realize the mistake they made in allowing the access," said Max Scheck, a San Francisco resident on a bus tour with his wife.

Development boosters, however, have long envisioned Denali as an under-used setting for projects to pack in more tourists. One perennial favorite, now being pushed by Gov. Walter Hickel's pro-development administration, is a second park road allowing easier access to the Kantishna mining district near Wonder Lake. The Hickel administration plan is for the state to enforce an historic right-of-way along an old dog-sled trail to bulldoze a new road north of the existing road.

Alaska's Republican United States senators champion other plans. Sen. Frank Murkowski is promoting a monorail to zip visitors through the park. Critics claim that project would cost $10 million to $20 million a mile. Sen. Ted Stevens is pushing for a new $35 million, 140-room hotel within the park, despite opposition from local residents and criticism that sparked a federal audit of Denali concessions.

Clashes between the small-time miners around Kantishna, a district that predates the park, and conservationists also dog park managers. While the Park Service continued negotiations to buy out some 80 Kantishna mining claims, the Hickel administration - setting the stage for a court battle - last month issued mining permits for a creek that state officials claim is navigable and under state jurisdiction.

Denali development debates follow a familiar pattern, Berry said. "If you look at the controversies that swirl around Denali, you can break most of them down to preservation versus use," he said. "You get a sense that how goes Denali, how goes the state."

The most advanced development plan calls for new visitor centers, trails, and cabins on the park's oft-neglected south side, an area warmer, more lushly vegetated, and closer to Anchorage than the park's busy north-side entrance. The Park Service's three alternative development plans incorporate Denali State Park, a low-key, bear-rich 324,240-acre reserve on the national park's southeastern border that offers spectacular vistas of McKinley and its glacier flanks.

South-side development opponents fear ecological damage will occur in an area now protected by its limited accessibility. Even without development, the south side is under increasing assault from poachers who chase bears to exhaustion with all-terrain vehicles.

Some also fear development's social impacts. The Park Service was presented with petitions signed by 890 people opposing a visitor center in Talkeetna, a quaint hamlet of 400 best known as the jumping-off site for Mt. McKinley climbing expeditions.

Development backers argue that Talkeetna-area residents should shed romantic frontier notions and accommodate the booming Alaska tourism industry in a controlled fashion. Mary Carey, an 80-year-old author, homesteader, and proprietor of a lodge adjacent to the state park, counts herself on the side of "progress."

"I don't think anybody owns this mountain or this view of the mountain," she says. "Everybody should have that opportunity. It's fabulous."

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