Tourism in Katmai Country
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The history of concessions at Katmai is inextricably tied to that of the park itself. Many of America's largest national parks have been developed in conjunction with the efforts of one or more concessioners. In Katmai's case concessions played an even more active role because the first park concessioner, Northern Consolidated Airlines, was a singlehanded force responsible for development. That concessioner continued to be the active shaper of Katmai's growth for the next two decades. Two men—NCA President Raymond I. Petersen and Camp Superintendent John Walatka—were primarily responsible for guiding that growth.

In retrospect, it appears that Katmai has witnessed three phases of concessions development. Between 1950 and the early 1970s most park development resulted from concessioner activities. NCA was responsible for the initial development of the two camps situated in the monument. A decade later the concessioner went out on a financial limb when it undertook its Brooks Camp building program. The NPS, however, was at best a passive player. It waited until after Northern Consolidated signed its first concessions permit before it established its first rude facilities. During the 1950s the agency suppressed several concessioner-sponsored projects, such as the Brooks Camp airstrip; it was, however, unable or unwilling to fund its own projects because Katmai attracted such a small number of visitors. In the early 1960s, the Valley Road and other agency-sponsored improvements took place only because of political pressure applied by the concessioner. Later in the decade the agency continued its reluctance to develop the scant number of facilities. Furthermore, it continued to refuse funding for an airstrip near Brooks Camp, a step that NCA officials considered crucial to further camp development.

The second phase of concessions development took place from the early 1970s through the early 1980s. With the departure of Petersen and Walatka as decision makers over camp affairs, the concessioner was no longer guided by individuals who had a close personal association with the camps. In addition, the airline holding the concession was much larger than it had been in the 1950-1968 period. This caused the camps to be treated more as a profit center than as a method of publicizing a struggling regional airline. The increasingly corporate attitude became more pronounced in 1979, when Wien was taken over by Household Finance Corporation (later Household International, Inc.). During the 1972-1982 period the concessioner increasingly perceived that the camps held little potential as a profit center; therefore, the company saw little need to provide new investment at the camps.

During this period the NPS undertook a more active management of its Katmai lands. By this time the park had become administered from King Salmon rather than far-off McKinley Park. Because independent travelers composed a significant percentage of Katmai's visitors, the agency insisted on a more active role in directing affairs, particularly at Brooks Camp. The master plan process and the imposition of Servicewide environmental regulations served as vehicles by which the NPS increased its visibility within the park. The agency's growing role, combined with the concessioner's diminished desire for development, meant that the concessioner built little during this period. And although the NPS made plans to reduce the role of Brooks Camp by creating visitor nodes elsewhere in the monument, such plans were never consummated. Indeed, the agency appears to have tacitly accepted the preeminent role of Brooks Camp by 1973, because it funded several large projects there including a utility system, NPS employee cabins, dock facilities, and a floating bridge.

The third phase of Katmai concession development began in 1982, when KatmaiLand, Inc., purchased the concession contract from Wien Air Alaska. The purchase signaled the return of the concession from a large corporation to a more personal operation. More important, the new owners—Raymond I. Petersen and his son, Raymond F. Petersen—had had a long association with the camps; they thus had a personal as well as financial interest in the camps' success. During the last nine years, KatmaiLand (known as Katmailand since 1983) constructed a long-delayed concessions housing complex as well as several additional buildings, and has pressured the NPS to allow expanded facilities. But the NPS has also played an active role; as guardian of park resources, it has allowed development only under an increasingly complex maze of planning and environmental constraints. The effect of those constraints has been to delay and even prevent new construction.

The history of concessions operations at Katmai has been marked by widely varying degrees of cooperation between the concessioner and the National Park Service. Two factors have been primarily responsible for a breakdown in that cooperation. To a large extent, this can be traced to the different roles of the two parties. The concessioner is a business which seeks to maximize a profit based on its investment, while the NPS is required to administer its lands for purposes of protection as well as use. The uses that take place must be consistent with the overall goal of land protection.

Another reason problems occasionally surfaced is because of the dynamic management structure of the two parties. The concessioner changed from a small regional airline to a large statewide airline, then to a subsidiary of a Fortune 500-sized multinational corporation, and finally to a small, father-and-son corporation. The NPS, for its part, exhibited an almost continual changeover in personnel having influence over Katmai operations, and the multi-layered nature of agency decision making often proved frustrating to those with whom it worked. Because of these two factors, it is expected that periods of genuine harmony between the two parties would be relatively rare, and that occasional periods of rancor would by no means be unexpected.

Considering the nature of the NPS-concessioner relationship, it is not surprising that relations have been quite variable. They cooperated well, for instance, during the early 1950s, when the NPS as well as the concessioner welcomed development. The remainder of the decade, however, was characterized by sporadic conflict because of divergent goals regarding the proposed Brooks Camp airstrip. After a temporary reconciliation, the parties clashed again in the early 1960s because the NPS refused to fund planned improvements.

Because the NPS constructed the Valley Road, relations improved through the mid-1960s. By the end of the decade, however, the concessioner became increasingly frustrated over the agency's inability to issue a long-term contract. So far as is known, the NPS did not conspire to prevent such a contract, and it was always able to cite legitimate reasons for its delays. The effect of the delays, however, was that the concessioner spent the period between 1965 and 1981 limping from one contract extension to the next. (A total of nine such extensions were issued; none were valid for more than three and a half years.) No significant capital investments could take place in such an atmosphere.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s relations between the NPS and the concessioner were particularly strained. The so-called Lake Grosvenor incident of 1976, when a minor jet-boat mishap ballooned into a policy dispute that eventually involved Congressmen and the NPS directorate, was an indicator of the lack of communication between the two parties. Thereafter, the NPS became increasingly frustrated with the concessioner because it insisted on raising tour and lodging prices while refusing to replace the aging vans used on its Valley tour. Miscommunication and occasional acrimony characterized the relationship between Wien and the NPS during this period, particularly in the months preceding the creation of a new concessions contract. After the contract signing tempers cooled somewhat, but relations remained unstable because Wien made little secret of its desire to divest itself of camp operations.

The KatmaiLand purchase of the concessions contract promised an improvement in relations between the NPS and concessioner. The agency was pleased, of course, that the new concessioner was willing to undertake each of the construction provisions required in the 15-year contract. Since that time occasional disputes have rankled relations between the two parties; they have included access and ownership issues at Kulik Lake, and the NPS's failure to provide interpreters on the Valley tour buses. On the whole, however, relations during the mid- to late 1980s have remained significantly better than those during the 1972-1982 period. Based on the short history of the Katmai operation, one may wish to generalize that visitors are most effectively served, and relations with the concessioner are best maintained, when the NPS deals with relatively small concession companies. It is not known, however, if this generalization can be extended beyond the case study examined here.

One is tempted, in the writing of an NPS concessions history, to limit one's scope to relations between the agency and the concessions contract holder. In the Katmai case, however, such a methodology would result in a necessarily incomplete, fragmented view of the park's commercial history. The concessions contract holder has been the most long-standing commercial operation, but many others have also shown an interest in Katmai's lands and waters.

These users have been visiting the park for decades. The first known users were military officers; they, in turn, were followed by inholders, who began to establish guide outfits beginning in the mid-1960s. By the late 1970s a number of commercial operators, based outside the park, began to arrive on day-long trips. Most early operators (primarily fishing guides) hailed from King Salmon and other nearby areas, and traveled to Lake Camp, Brooks Camp, and the Alagnak River. But as the park's popularity spread, an increasing number of operators came from Anchorage and Lower 48 points, and the destination for which they headed spread into most of the major watercourses. Commercial interests came to Katmai for a wide variety of purposes, but a strong majority favored sport fishing. Of secondary interest was float trip activity, primarily along the Nonvianuk River.

The continuing growth in visitation to Katmai has sparked several new issues in recent years. Along American Creek, west of Grosvenor Camp, fishing proved so popular that park management and fishing guides worked together to create a limited concessions permit system. Other drainages have been considered for such permits, and as visitation rises may be implemented at some future date. At Brooks Camp, the rapid influx of day-trippers, many of whom are guests of large tour companies, has strained resources. And at the northern end of the park, the NPS has replaced the state as the agency responsible for issuing and regulating hunting permits.

The half century covered by this study have witnessed an overwhelming degree of change. In the 1940s, Katmai attracted only the hardiest, most independent fishermen, and in the 1950s development was limited to rustic facilities catering to the exclusive fishing fraternity. In the 1960s facility improvements allowed non-fishermen to begin arriving in significant numbers. The 1970s witnessed a further growth in both fishing and non-fishing tourists, and tourists from outside lodges began to arrive. During the 1980s, growth was no less than explosive; tourism rose sharply, and for the first time broad areas of the park began to support commercial activities. Future decades promise continued growth, and demand increasingly sophisticated solutions in order to allow the park to perform its twin duties, protection and use, as outlined in the 1916 organic act.

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Last Updated: 13-Oct-2004