DESPITE the perception of many Americans that their national symbol has all but disappeared, the bald eagle thrives in Alaska. There, great tracts of undeveloped land afford the necessary habitat. In this state, the sight of a bird with a seven-foot wingspan soaring effortlessly is not unusual. But even Alaskans are enthusiastic about the great autumn gathering of up to 4,000 eagles along the Chilkat River, just outside the community of Haines.
Haines (pop: 1,100) connects the waters of the Inside Passage to the Alaska highway system, and each year convoys of Winnebagos unload from state ferries to start the long trek north. Just outside Haines, a plain set of highway signs note that the next few miles pass through the 48,000-acre Chilkat Valley Bald Eagle Preserve.
Summer motorists, who see no more eagles here than they would in any other southeast Alaska town, do notice one subtle difference -- the lush rain forest found along the coast has given way to drier, less dense stands of cottonwoods. But when cottonwood leaves fall and snow covers the ground, passersby along miles 19 to 23 of the highway can count hundreds of white heads among the naked branches.
Traditionally labeled by Alaskan natives of the area as the ``Council Grounds,'' this spot, with its small stretch of river and a late salmon run, attracts eagles from all over Canada and Alaska every autumn.
While large numbers of eagles have long converged on the Council Grounds, only recently have the birds generated outside curiosity.
In the mid-1970s, the Audubon Society moved to protect what is described as the largest concentration of bald eagles in the world, explains Linda Kruger, a regional supervisor with the Alaska Division of Parks. By 1979, federal and state groups joined to set up a five-year plan for the river valley, and the Alaska legislature approved the preserve in 1982.
Al Gilliam, a former logger and trapper, guides wildlife photographers, some of the world's most famous, into the preserve. He sets them up in a sleeping bag, hands over a warm thermos, baits the photogenic scenery with a dead salmon and then leaves his charge to shoot happily away until the light wanes.
Ms. Kruger and Mr. Gilliam lobbied hard for the preserve, and even though their livelihoods depend on outsiders' fascination with the birds, both worry about swelling numbers of tourists disturbing the eagle habitat.
Gilliam, Kruger, and others point out that the birds gather, not for social reasons, but for survival. Warm upwellings in the river bed prevent portions of the Chilkat from icing over, giving eagles access to spawned-out chum and coho salmon.
``Everything at this time of year is geared to food and as little flying around as necessary,'' says Gilliam, referring to the harsh November weather and the eagles' ravenous consumption of protein.
But each year, more visitors arrive in cars and buses, slamming doors and tramping through the brush to get a closer look at the majestic creatures. When a human approaches, the eagle glides away almost disdainfully in search of privacy. Well-meaning bird lovers do not realize the displaced eagle will not return to its perch for several days, possibly crowding other eagles' territory. Unnecessary flight can tip the scales against survival.
Gilliam supports limited human access to the preserve, and adds: ``We've got to look at this as an eagle preserve, not a people park.''
For the town of Haines, an unanticipated economic mini-boom accompanied the preserve's creation. ``People come from all around year-round and expect to see eagles,'' says Kruger.
And people who once despised the thought of designating property for the birds now hope to capitalize on the eagle-tourist dollars -- not the first time people have looked at the birds as a means to make money.
Until the mid-1950s, for example, fisherman thought the eagles' gorging during annual salmon runs depleted stocks. Carl Heinmiller, a Haines resident since 1947, recalls days when bounty hunters received $2 for every pair of razor-sharp talons they brought in.
``They used to shoot 500 to 1,000 eagles a year'' in Haines alone, he says.
Throughout the territory, between 1917 and 1953 (the year that the federal government repealed the bounty), more than 100,000 birds were destroyed. Mr. Heinmiller insists the eagle population did not decline, despite all the bounty hunters.
``The preserve is sort of a joke,'' he contends.
Though the bounty days are over and a preserve is set aside, conservationists fear eagles face other pressures as Alaska develops.
Supporters point out that the preserve only assists the eagles during one vulnerable time of the year and that logging, mining, agricultural homesteading, and even tourism hundreds of miles away can threaten the eagle population.
Meanwhile, the state continues to work to relieve the stress visitors may cause for eagles in the Chilkat preserve, with plans to add special observation spots and possibly a research center. Haines residents have come to realize that, as long as the ice-free sections of the Chilkat hold salmon, eagles and tourists will return.