Land Reborn:
A History of Administration and Visitor Use in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve
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Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is a cultural creation. The American people invented the national park idea to preserve large pieces of nature, but nature itself is a culturally defined concept imbued with different meanings by different peoples. John Muir, one of the first Americans to explore Glacier Bay, held a view of nature that contrasted both with the views of his Tlingit Indian guides and the thinking of his white contemporaries who came to southeast Alaska seeking gold and sea otter pelts. Ecologist William S. Cooper, whose appreciation of nature propelled the movement to establish Glacier Bay National Monument, focused upon the relationship of plant communities to glacier recession; but citizens of the territory of Alaska who opposed the national monument conceived of nature as a storehouse of minerals, timber, and arable soil to be used and cultivated.

Concepts of nature not only vary among people and cultures, they have changed significantly over time. Today's Tlingits of the village of Hoonah, whose ancestors claimed Glacier Bay as their hunting and fishing grounds, view their relationship to the area differently from their forebears, not only as a result of their dispossession of the land, but because they have integrated their subsistence lifeways into a culture that is oriented around commercial fishing. The cruise ship passengers of today marvel at the sight of tidewater glaciers calving icebergs into the bay just as excursionists on steamships did in the 1880s and 1890s. But wilderness now appears to them more threatened than threatening, and they are likely to embrace certain environmental values, such as the preservation of endangered species or clean air, that were unknown in the nineteenth century. Modern recreationists in Glacier Bay--boaters, kayakers, and backpackers--may define nature according to their success in achieving solitude. This is a culturally determined quality that was either irrelevant to or taken for granted by earlier generations of recreationists.

Scientists too regard nature in Glacier Bay through a remarkably different lens today than they did a century, or even half a century, ago. The development of commercial fishing, mining, logging, tourism, and accompanying population growth in southeast Alaska have drastically altered the context of Glacier Bay. As humans reshape the land and marine environments on the national park's boundaries, the enclosed area becomes less a sample of a wider natural environment than a kind of giant petri dish where ecological change can be observed in relatively pristine conditions. The national park boundaries succeed in controlling the experiment for some kinds of scientific inquiry better than others. Insofar as one purpose of the national park is to preserve a natural environment for scientific research, concerned scientists increasingly align themselves with the preservation movement. In an earlier era, when the national monument boundaries were little more than lines on a map or when they did not yet exist, scientists had very different reasons for studying glaciers and ecology in Glacier Bay. Most important, it was accessible.

Since all these groups of people--Hoonah Tlingits, non-Native resident Alaskans, mass tourists, recreationists, and scientists--hold changing concepts of nature, it is not surprising that the National Park Service (NPS) reinterprets the purpose of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve and reorients its management goals from time to time also. In essence, the administrative history of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve consists of the agency's continual renegotiation of the park's cultural meaning with all of these different groups of people.

Every unit in the national park system presents unique challenges for management, and Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve has presented them in abundance. First was the question of Indian land title. Outside Alaska, nearly all units of the national park system were created from lands in which aboriginal human activities were previously terminated. The United States subdued Indian tribes, coerced them into ceding most of their lands, and established Indian reservations with what remained. The ceded lands became public domain for a period before they became national parks. In this way, Indians were severed both legally and ecologically from their past relationship to national park lands. [1] In Alaska, the United States did not pursue this rather paradoxical pattern of recognizing Indians' aboriginal title as it took their land; instead, it offered Alaska Natives free homesteads, schooling, and land title to their permanent winter village sites. As a result, the Park Service acquired an area to which an aboriginal people, the Hoonah Tlingits, had never relinquished their hunting and fishing claims. This was an anomalous and ambiguous situation for which there was no institutional management framework. The Hoonah Tlingits did not receive financial restitution for the land until the Tlingit-Haida Claim Settlement Act of 1969.

The Hoonah Tlingits' relationship to Glacier Bay remains unclear. Today, many Hoonah Tlingits feel they have been wronged again. Although the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), enacted in 1980, provides for subsistence use in all new national park areas created in Alaska under that law, the Park Service maintains that ANILCA's subsistence provisions do not apply to Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. Many Hoonah Tlingits argue otherwise.

Another constellation of management issues revolves around the area's extraordinarily rich natural resources. These can be grouped into three categories. First, the mountain ranges are highly mineralized; indeed, it is claimed that the largest known deposit of nickel in the United States lies beneath the Brady Icefield. Second, the Gustavus forelands, consisting of a large glacial outwash plain near the entrance to Glacier Bay, is the largest plain in all of southeast Alaska. This made it attractive both to homesteaders and the U.S. Army, which constructed an airfield there in World War II. Third, the fisheries within national park waters in Glacier Bay, Dundas Bay, Cross Sound, and on the outer coast have attracted commercial fishermen in increasing numbers as pressure on southeast Alaska's fisheries grows.

These resource issues all have long histories; another set of management concerns is of recent origin and stems from the Park Service's very success in making Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve an attractive place for the vacationing public. People in the Park Service commonly observe that the agency's dual mandate--to provide facilities for visitor use and to protect the resource for future generations--becomes increasingly tricky as the nation's growing population places a greater and greater load on the national park system's fragile areas. Problems relating to excessive visitor use are relatively recent in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. Indeed, from 1925 until about 1965, NPS officials had the frustrating task of managing an area essentially for future generations, as very few tourists came to the national monument. Visitation grew from virtually nil to tens of thousands in the crucial period 1965-1975; it reached 100,000 annually in the late 1970s and continued to grow. Increased visitation has affected the park's wildlife, notably the seasonal population of endangered humpback whale. The park's terrestrial wildlife is unusually sensitive because backcountry users and wildlife both concentrate their activity along the beach perimeter of Glacier Bay. Increased visitation also threatens one of the park's most valued qualities, solitude.

This administrative history is organized chronologically in three parts. Each part examines how the Park Service and various contending groups constructed an overall conception of the park's purpose that guided management decisions. In the first period, from John Muir's visit in 1879 through the mid-1930s, Glacier Bay National Monument's thrilling glacier scenery and interest to science became its defining features. Steamship excursions to the Muir Glacier in the 1880s and 1890s laid the foundation for a later tourist industry. The steamships also brought a parade of geologists, whose cumulative studies over a span of twenty years documented the recession of the glaciers and established a scientific tradition in Glacier Bay. This period culminated in the campaign by the Ecological Society of America to preserve Glacier Bay's scenic and scientific values. By the time the national monument was established in 1925, the early period of tourism had ended and the only visitors to the area were scientists and Native seal hunters. This unconventional pattern of use seemed to justify the Park Service's virtual non-management of the area through the 1930s. It was in this context that Glacier Bay National Monument was reopened to mining despite opposition by conservation groups.

A new conception of Glacier Bay National Monument developed in the 1930s in response to an extensive study of wildlife in the national park system. According to new NPS policy, national parks were to preserve natural ecological relationships between predators and prey, mainly through protection of habitat. NPS officials applied the policy to Glacier Bay in connection with the public's demand for protection of the Alaskan brown bear. The result was an approximate doubling of the size of Glacier Bay National Monument in 1939 to include adequate habitat for brown bear and other large fauna. With few tourists visiting Glacier Bay in this period, the Park Service stance was mainly protective. Hoonah Tlingits and white homesteaders in the Gustavus forelands area resisted the new regime; Hoonah Tlingits negotiated for special privileges to continue seal hunting, while Gustavus residents succeeded in getting the Gustavus forelands excluded from the monument in 1954. Park Service objectives also had to be modified to accommodate military installations built in the Gustavus area during World War II and the anomalous position of mining interests within the monument.

The Park Service and other groups reformulated the purpose of Glacier Bay National Monument again in the 1960s. The most apparent change was a shift in management concerns from the terrestrial to the marine environment. Tourists began visiting in significant numbers after 1965, most of them exploring the national monument by private or charter boat. After 1969, most of Glacier Bay's visitors came by cruise ship. Marine mammals commanded their attention. Moreover, advances in marine biology made it possible for the Park Service to extend its policy of ecosystem management to the marine environment. As a result, the Park Service ended seal hunting by Natives, promulgated regulations on vessel traffic to protect the endangered humpback whales, and began to phase out commercial fishing in park waters.

But a renewed emphasis on ecosystem management and a shift in focus to marine resources do not explain the full range of management issues that developed in the past twenty-five years. The prevailing concept in this period was wilderness preservation. The concept of wilderness raised the whole problem of defining nature to a new level of abstraction. With some park visitors seeking primitiveness, solitude, and silence, and other park visitors requiring comfortable access to the park's main attractions by cruise ship or other motor vessel, the best solution seemed to be to partition the nature preserve into "wilderness" and "non-wilderness." The difficult questions of where this boundary should be drawn and what should be allowed to take place on either side of it have influenced virtually every management issue over the past two and a half decades.

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in Regional Perspective. (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

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Last Updated: 24-Sep-2000