South Denali History
EIS Process 2004-2006
Interpretive Plan Public Meetings (2007)
In general, there has been a shared vision among public land managers in the south Denali region that the south side of Denali should receive greater use and development for visitors. However, the issues related to such development have historically generated extensive public controversy.
The ‘60s and ‘70s
In 1968 the U.S. and Alaska Departments of Commerce proposed a facility at Chulitna Pass. That was followed by a 1969 proposal by the National Park Service and the Alaska Division of Tourism for a facility on South Curry Ridge (NPS 1969). The location at Chulitna, which is only 70 miles from the main entrance of Denali National Park, and lack of existing infrastructure at both sites made these projects unappealing to many people. Neither proposal materialized, though the designation of Denali State Park in 1970 was intended to provide the land base and protections needed for a major public tourism facility (Cresap, McCormick, and Paget; 1968).
In 1974 Alaska State Parks proposed a lodge, visitor center, park headquarters, and a downhill ski area at Byers Lake (Alaska State Parks, 1974 and 1975). This project was actually let out for competitive proposals and a contract was awarded; however, the successful bidder never seriously pursued the project.
The concept of locating recreation facilities in the Peters Hills emerged from a study undertaken by the state in 1970 to explore ways to increase the role of tourism in the Alaskan economy. One of the study recommendations was the construction of a hotel in the south Denali area. Bradford Washburn, the director of the Boston Museum of Science and world renown Mount McKinley cartographer and photographer, recommended that visitor facilities be constructed at a site south of the Tokositna River (Environmental Investigation and Site Analysis – Tokositna, Denali State Park, 1980).
In 1972, U.S. Senator Mike Gravel urged the state and the federal government to jointly study the feasibility of locating visitor facilities in the south Denali area. In 1973, the Mount McKinley National Park master plan recommended an expansion of the park boundary to the south and a shift of visitor attention and facilities to the south side. The 1975 Denali State Park master plan recommended the addition of the Tokositna study area to the state park for the development of visitor and recreation facilities. In 1976, the state legislature added to the state park the land that comprises the study area (Environmental Investigation and Site Analysis – Tokositna, Denali State Park, 1980).
Following these two events, State Senator Patrick Rodey and Representative Clark Gruening, with the strong support of Senator Gravel, sponsored the passage of two appropriation bills in the 1978 legislature. One bill appropriated $310,000 to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources to investigate the feasibility of constructing a lodge and visitor center complex at Tokositna, and the second bill appropriated $85,000 to the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities to study access to the area. These developments led to a memorandum of understanding, signed in October 1978 by the secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior, the governor of Alaska, and the mayor of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, to jointly plan visitor facilities and programs in Denali State Park (Environmental Investigation and Site Analysis – Tokositna, Denali State Park, 1980).
In May 1979, the state legislature set up the Tokositna Special Committee, with Senator Gravel, State Senator Rodey, and Commissioner of Natural Resources Robert LeResche as members. The purpose of this committee was to provide direction for the Tokositna project. The vision for this project was a major, year-round tourism and recreation destination that included commercial lodging and a variety of other facilities and services; various outdoor recreation activities including alpine skiing; campgrounds; trail heads; an airstrip; and a Teflon dome enclosure to house many of these facilities. Four reports were produced that deal with the feasibility of developing major recreation facilities at Tokositna: 1) Environmental Investigation and Site Analysis; 2) Market Analysis and Economic Study; 3) Downhill/cross-country Ski and Outdoor Recreation Study; and 4) Transportation Study.
The Environmental Investigation and Site Analysis (1980) analyzed key environmental information about the physical aspects of the Tokositna area. The Market Analysis/ Economic Feasibility Study (1979) analyzed the potential in-state and out-of-state visitor use demand. The Skiing Feasibility Analysis (1979) passed a positive judgement on the feasibility of skiing in the south Denali area: “Based upon the scope and quality of terrain the tentatively selected site compares favorably with other successful ski resorts in the U.S., Canada and Europe” (Sno Engineering 1979, p.2). Disadvantages included high development and operating costs, sensitive environmental and wilderness values, conflict with existing mining claims, and unproved technologies with regard to the Teflon dome enclosure.
These studies were followed by a series of site proposals. In 1980 the Alaska Division of Parks and the NPS proposed facilities at the Tokositna site. In 1986 the Denali National Park and Preserve General Management Plan proposed cooperative state, federal, and private development of a visitor center/hotel complex on South Curry Ridge (ADNR and NPS 1986). The plan calls for the development of visitor services and access to the South Denali region to take advantage of the area’s dramatically sculptured landscapes and mountain-oriented recreational opportunities, and recommends the project be planned and developed cooperatively with the state of Alaska and with involvement from the private sector.
Three years later the 1989 Denali State Park Master Plan proposed a facility for High Lake in the north end of Denali State Park (ADNR 1989; ADNR 1990). The Master Plan recommends facility construction in the South Denali region because, “Tremendous views of the Mt. McKinley massif and the diversity of surrounding areas make the park an appropriate location for a ‘South Denali Visitor Complex’. The visitor complex will provide a focal point and staging area for the Denali State Park interpretive program.”
In 1990 CIRI proposed a facility about a mile south of the Talkeetna townsite. Most proposals were rejected because they weren't accessible by road and railroad. Only two points on the main highway system in the south side area offer both railroad access and a good view of Mount McKinley – High Lake and Talkeetna. High Lake was rejected after considerable public opposition and after it was determined to be only marginally feasible for hotel development.
In October 1990 the Senate Appropriations Committee directed the National Park Service to address visitor facility development in Talkeetna, Denali State Park, and on the south side of Denali National Park. The 1991 report in response to the directive from the Senate Committee on Appropriations concluded that the CIRI site for a Talkeetna Visitor Center would be suitable and economically feasible (DOI NPS 1991).
In 1993, the National Park Service published a Draft South Slope Denali Development Concept Plan/Environmental Impact Statement that proposed two visitor centers: one in Talkeetna on CIRI-owned land, and one along the Parks Highway. The 1993 draft plan did not resolve the controversial issues, so in 1994 at the request of Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, a Denali Task Force was established to make recommendations on, among other matters, the cooperative management and recreation development of Denali’s south side. The task force submitted its final report to the National Park System Advisory Board in December 1994, and the report’s recommendations for the south side were adopted by the advisory board without modification (Denali Task Force 1994).
In 1995 the Alaska Visitors Association (AVA) proposed a tram to Alder Point to access south Denali. The AVA recommended further study of a 2-stage aerial tramway at Alder Point extending from the south end of Denali State Park several miles toward, and into, Denali National Park.
In May 1995, south side planning was re initiated cooperatively by an intergovernmental planning team. Governor Tony Knowles directed the state to take a lead role in this cooperative effort to increase recreation and tourism opportunities on the south side of Denali. The cooperative planning team was comprised of representatives from the National Park Service, State of Alaska, Denali Borough, Matanuska-Susitna Borough, and two Native regional corporations (Ahtna, Inc., and Cook Inlet Region, Inc.). One component of this cooperative endeavor was the preparation of a 1997 South Side Development Concept Plan/Environmental Impact Statement (DCP/EIS). The purposes of the DCP/EIS were to:
Provide opportunities for high quality, resource-based destination experiences and provide information, orientation, and recreation services and facilities convenient to park visitors.
Develop facilities and access in a location and manner that minimizes impacts on resources, local lifestyles, and communities.
Establish working partnerships for funding and phasing development.
Provide access to and a location for interpretation of the special qualities found in Denali National Park and Preserve and Denali State Park, including access to the spectacular alpine landscape on the south side of the Alaska Range.
Offer a range of experiences and opportunities to meet the diverse needs of the traveling public, including information and orientation to the region, and new or improved recreation facilities.
Ensure that, viewed as a whole, facilities and services benefit all visitors, including Alaska residents, independent travelers, and package tour travelers.
Design and develop facilities and access improvements to support public use and understanding of the south side and its outstanding resources.
Establish a research program and identify management needs to guide facility and road development.
Facilitate orderly economic development in the region consistent with resource protection.
Minimize and mitigate adverse effects on fish and wildlife resources, habitat, cultural resources, local rural quality of life, and existing public land and resource uses, including subsistence uses.
Establish methods, responsibilities, and necessary steps to control unwanted secondary impacts of tourism and to minimize conflicts between different visitor groups.
In compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, as amended, the National Park Service was the lead federal agency responsible for the DCP/EIS; the state and the two boroughs were cooperating agencies. The two Native corporations could not serve as cooperating agencies under the National Environmental Protection Act, but were considered planning partners pursuant to ANCSA (P.L. 92-203, Sec. 2(b) and in accordance with National Park Service policy and the Federal Advisory Committee Act.
The revised draft DCP/EIS was filed with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in March 1996 and the final was filed with the EPA in January 1997. The selected alternative in the final DCP/EIS provides for enhanced access and recreational opportunities throughout the south Denali region for a variety of visitors, including Alaskans, independent travelers, and package tour travelers, while at the same time protecting the important resource and community values in the area, including the rural lifestyle of local residents. The DCP/EIS plans visitor facilities for the Tokositna area at the western edge of Denali State Park near the end of an upgraded and extended Petersville Road; in the central development zone of Denali State Park along the George Parks Highway; at Chelatna Lake; and in the Dunkle Hills. Developments would include a visitor center, parking, up to 50 campsites, a picnic area, hiking trails, information and safety signage, and associated facilities.
The 1997 Record of Decision (ROD) for the DCP/EIS commits the NPS to take all practicable measures to avoid or minimize adverse environmental effects that could result from implementation of the selected action. These measures include conducting cooperative research on the natural and cultural resources and human uses on the south side; protecting sensitive wildlife habitat and activities; protecting, to the extent practicable, wetlands and vegetation; implementing best management practices to protect water quality and surface water resources; implementing measures to reduce soil loss; implementing measures to reduce the potential for human/wildlife conflicts; protecting archeological and historic resources, as necessary; and incorporating sustainable design principles and aesthetics into facility design and siting. Adverse environmental effects also will be minimized by implementing additional land use controls prior to major development and managing recreational and other activities to protect south side resources.
At the same time, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough finalized the Petersville Road Corridor Management Plan. One of the objectives of the 1998 Matanuska-Susitna Borough Petersville Road Corridor Management Plan (Maps) is to enhance the visitor experience of Petersville Road in conjunctions with facility development in the South Denali region. Recommendations include interpretive panels, informational kiosks, vegetative buffers, and retention of scenic qualities along the road corridor.
These planning processes relied heavily on public input; however, portions of the 1997 plan remained controversial even after substantial modifications were made to address public concerns. To address implementation of the south side plan, in 1997 the Governor of Alaska chartered the South Denali Citizens Consultation Committee, which included representatives from south side communities and interested user groups.
The 1999 South Denali Citizens Consultation Committee Final Report recommended modifying the development concepts in the South Side Denali Development Concept Plan while remaining consistent with its goals and objectives: to provide resident and visitor facilities throughout the south side of the Alaska Range to meet a wide range of needs and interests of the region’s diverse user groups. The committee recommended that a nature center be constructed within the Denali State Park boundary and avoid an extensive upgrade of the Petersville Road through the canyon, thereby minimizing impacts to mining and backcountry uses.
The 2000-2001 Denali National Park Business Plan offers south Denali development as the long-term solution for an alternative tourist destination to Denali National Park and Preserve: “The area offers beautiful views of Mount McKinley and the Alaska Range, glaciers, streams, and much of the impressive array of wildlife for which the Denali Park Road is famous. This alternative visitor destination would be created through partnerships with the state, local communities, and native corporations.”
EIS Process 2004-2006
The National Park Service received a fiscal year ’04 Congressional appropriation to develop facilities in the South Denali region, and a Notice of Intent to prepare a South Denali Implementation Plan was published in the Federal Register in February 2004. The South Denali Implementation Plan and EIS were developed between 2004 and 2006 with an exhaustive public involvement process that yielded the preferred alternative of Curry Ridge. This excellent resource is constantly utilized as we move forward with implementation. The second record of decision was signed in 2006 click here to view a copy of that document.
Click here for the Scoping Newsletter published in February, 2004.
Interpretive Planning Meetings
The State of Alaska contracted with Schmeekle Reserve Interpreters from the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point to prepare an interpretive master plan for the South Denali Visitor Complex. In 2007 the Schmeekle Reserve Interpreters held information gathering sessions in Trapper Creek, Wasilla and Anchorage to record responses to the following questions:
• What stories would you share with an out-of-town visitor? (About your community? About Curry Ridge and this region?)
• What effects do you foresee the South Denali facility having on the region, your community, or Curry Ridge? (Potential benefits? Concerns?)
• How can the South Denali facility be developed to benefit Alaska residents? (specific features of the visitor center/specific features of the site?)
• What/who are some resources that we can investigate or interview to learn more about this area?
The following generalized comments from these meetings provide insight into the vision and concerns of local regional citizens:
• Anticipate and mitigate impacts to the alpine flora and wildlife. Conduct biological inventories and monitor wildlife (important area for bears and moose).
• All development should be sensitive to the viewshed and tranquility of the site and minimize environmental impact. Shuttle to the top strongly supported.
• Avoid “glitter gulch” developments along the Parks Highway.
• Minimize recreational impacts on Curry ridge from trampling and motorized vehicles.
• Provide non-motorized shoulder season and winter use of the facilities and site by locals and schools.
• Interpret local history (town of Curry, railroad, indigenous Athabaskans, mountaineering, aviation, mining, homesteading, Parks Highway).
• Interpret the ecological and geological history and geomorphology.
• The center and trails will be an important recreational resource for Alaska residents and should be designed to meet their needs as well as out-of-state visitors.
Complete responses from these meetings are recorded in Appendix 2 of the South Denali Visitor Complex Interpretive Master Plan.
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