Tourism in Katmai Country
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Since the creation of Yellowstone National Park, concessions operations have been integrally involved in the feeding, lodging, and transportation of park visitors. That idea was institutionalized when the National Park Service became a reality in 1916. The so-called Organic Act that year provided for two contrasting goals: protection and use. On the one hand, parks were established "to conserve the scenery and the natural and the historic objects and the wild life therein," but they were also asked "to provide for the enjoyment of the same" as long as they left the objects of that protection "unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." [1]

Since that time, a healthy tension has grown between the National Park Service and its concessioners. The agency has long recognized that the services provided by commercial operators are a key aspect of many visitors' trips to NPS units; as Stephen T. Mather once remarked, "Scenery is a hollow enjoyment to a tourist who sets out in the morning after an indigestible breakfast and a fitful sleep on an impossible bed." It is also well aware that concessioners, particularly those in the transportation business, play a major role in publicizing the national parks, and that they are glad to provide services which Congress has never shown a particular inclination to supply. [2] But at the same time, NPS officials recognize the necessity of regulation in order to ensure that concessioner operations are consistent with the overall goals of the national parks. The legacy of conditions at Yellowstone and Yosemite prior to the creation of the National Park Service was sufficient to convince early NPS leaders that unrestrained competition between concessioners resulted in overcrowded campgrounds, inferior transportation services, and generally negative visitor experiences. [3]

For almost fifty years after the establishment of the National Park Service, the attitude toward park concessioners was guided by a succession of informal policy directives, the general tone of which was established in a May 1918 letter to Director Stephen Mather signed by Franklin K. Lane, Woodrow Wilson's Secretary of the Interior. Lane's letter proposed that park concessioners operate as strictly regulated monopolies, which were to gain a fair return on their investments and enjoy a preferred right to renew their contracts or permits. [4] The only deviation from that philosophy developed in the mid-1940s when Harold L. Ickes, Franklin D. Roosevelt's Secretary of the Interior, and Julius Krug, his successor in the Truman administration, advocated a "public utility" approach to park concessions. The two men proposed Government acquisition of concession facilities, and fought to eliminate concessioners' preferred rights of renewal. But a Citizen Advisory Group formed to study the measure concluded that both parks and visitors were best served by the existing system. In 1950 Secretary of the Interior Oscar Chapman issued a policy memorandum which reaffirmed longstanding policies. These continued in force until the Concessions Policy Act of 1965 (Public Law 89-249) translated administrative directives into Congressional legislation. This act continues as the predominant instrument guiding the management of concessioners in the national parks. [5]

The following study is an attempt to chronicle the history of commercial operations within the present boundaries of Katmai National Park and Preserve in southwest Alaska. This area was created as a national monument in 1918. Its acreage was substantially augmented in 1931, and for almost half a century afterwards was the largest unit in the national park system. But few visited the vast reserve until 1950, when Northern Consolidated Airlines (NCA), under the guidance of President Raymond I. Petersen, opened a series of five fishing camps. Those camps—two located inside the old monument boundaries, the other three north of them—remain the only concessioner-operated facilities in the present park.

During the 40-odd years that have taken place since the camps were founded, only one concessioner has been active within the park unit at any given time. That concessioner has been particularly instrumental to the park's development because it has also operated the primary means of access to the camps. Because of the general inaccessibility of the Katmai country, the concessioner was one of the few ways by which visitors could access the park's remote areas before fly-in operations, from lodges based outside the park, became popular in the 1980s.

The tensions that have traditionally existed between the agency and park concessioners have by no means been absent in Katmai. As might be expected, the concessioner has often wished to expand its operations and facilities in ways deemed unacceptable by the National Park Service. The agency, in turn, has denied or stonewalled development proposals which the concessioner felt were legitimate and proper. Deviousness and chicanery have occasionally been practiced by both parties, but most of the major players involved, bureaucrats and concessioners alike, appear to have honestly and conscientiously followed the mandates laid out by concessions contracts and agency regulations.

Although the park concessioner has consistently been the most visible commercial operator into the Katmai country, it has by no means monopolized commercial development. In the mid-1960s a present-day inholder began operating a fishing guide service—the first of several to do so—and military personnel based within the monument boundary were also longtime users of park resources. The concessioner, moreover, has been inconsistent in the use of its own camps; it has intermittently closed one or more camps, and has, at other times, leased their operation to others.

Since the late 1970s, a revolution in tourism has taken place within Alaska, and one aspect of that revolution is that a major portion of Alaska's so-called "bush country" has become increasingly accessible. Because of its scenic beauty and the excellence of its fishing resources, the Katmai area has been a prime witness to the recreational boom. In 1980, for example, only a smattering of commercial operators were known to visit Katmai's lakes, streams and mountains, but a decade later more than fifty such operators were bringing thousands of tourists into the park each year. In order to regulate the burgeoning traffic in temporary users, the National Park Service created the Commercial Use License system, and it is within that system that most of Katmai's commercial growth is currently taking place.

As can be seen, a diversity of elements has been responsible for the commercial development of the Katmai country. To simplify the story of that development, the author has first addressed the activities of the park's concessioner, followed by those of various inholders and other non-concession holders. Within those broad parameters has been organized a rough chronological sequence.

Chapter 1, a prologue, describes the area's commercial development before NCA established its fish camps. The next four chapters describe the history of those camps. Chapter 2 investigates the process by which NCA secured the Katmai concession, and its plans in laying out the camps, while Chapter 3 follows the history of those camps while under NCA control. In 1968, NCA merged with Wien Air Alaska to become Wien Consolidated Airlines (WCA); Chapter 4 therefore discusses the operation of the camps under WCA and its successor, Wien Air Alaska. In late 1982 the administration of the camps changed yet again when Wien sold its interests in the camps to a new company called KatmaiLand. This company, known as Katmailand since May 1983, has operated the Katmai concession for the past nine years; its operations are discussed in Chapter 5.

The final two chapters discuss the myriad non-concessioner activities within the boundaries of the present park unit. Chapter 6 discusses the operations of present-day park inholders and leaseholders of the main concessions camps, while Chapter 7 is devoted to a discussion of the establishment and development of the park by operators based outside its boundaries. Three types of operators are discussed: 1) general users of Commercial Use Licenses; 2) users of Commercial Permits along American Creek, a rich trout-bearing stream which flows into the western end of Lake Coville; and 3) holders of commercial hunting permits in Katmai National Preserve, at the northern end of the park unit.

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Last Updated: 13-Oct-2004