Alaska Subsistence
A National Park Service Management History
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Chapter 3:

In December 1971, when Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the National Park Service managed some 6.9 million acres of Alaska real estate. That acreage covered less than 2 percent of Alaska's land mass but it comprised more than 28 percent of all NPS-managed land. [1] By that date, the agency had gained experience managing five Alaska park units, all of which had been established between 1910 and 1925. Two of the five units were established in order to preserve exceptional examples of Native American values and architecture, while the other three park units considered Native American values slightly if at all. It is perhaps ironic to note that the two units established with Native American values in mind have been largely irrelevant to the subsistence issue, while the three parks which soft-pedaled Native values (at least in their original goals) have had, by necessity, a long record of dealing with Native American and other rural residents' values and concerns.

Alaska's first national park unit was Sitka National Monument, established by presidential proclamation in August 1910 to commemorate two items of Native American interest: a remarkable collection of totems and the site of an epic 1804 battle between local Tlingits and the Russian Navy. The battle had been a major turning point in Russian-Tlingit relations, and the eventual Russian victory allowed for the subsequent Russian settlement of Sitka. The totems, carved by Haida craftsmen, were of remarkable importance as well; they had been collected from various Southeastern villages, brought to the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, and had been returned to Indian River Park after the festivities had concluded. The territory's second park unit, proclaimed in October 1916, was based on a similar theme. Old Kasaan National Monument was established to protect a recently-abandoned Haida village that contained a wide variety of artistry—dwellings, totems, house posts, and other domestic architecture.

Although both monuments were established in hopes of commemorating and preserving Native architecture and artistic values, only one succeeded in doing so. Sitka National Monument was successfully managed because it was located adjacent to an active small town, and because hundreds of tourists visited the site each year. But Old Kasaan National Monument, remote and located well away from the major steamship route, fell victim to an early fire, and both weather and neglect caused the remaining objects to deteriorate into insignificance. Sitka National Monument, now known as Sitka National Historical Park, has become an increasingly popular destination over the years. At Old Kasaan, however, the site became so degraded that in 1955, Congress (at the agency's urging) delisted the national monument. Both sites, because of their small size (and in Sitka's case, its urban location) have hosted few subsistence activities over the years, and as the following chapter notes, Congress did not consider subsistence activities at Sitka National Historical Park when it passed the Alaska Lands Act in 1980. The remainder of this chapter considers subsistence issues in the three large park units that were established prior to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act: Mount McKinley National Park, Katmai National Monument, and Glacier Bay National Monument. [2]

A. Mount McKinley National Park

Mount McKinley National Park was established on February 26, 1917, when President Wilson signed the bill that Congress had passed just a week earlier. The park was the brainchild of Charles Sheldon, a wealthy hunter-naturalist from Vermont, who had first visited the area in 1906 and had been so captivated by the experience that he returned a year later, built a cabin along the Toklat River, and spent the winter there. Sheldon, though a visitor, lived a subsistence lifestyle, killing meat as necessary for sustenance. Though particularly interested in Dall sheep, he was highly intrigued by the area's caribou populations and, as historian William Brown notes, "birds, bears, moose, foxes, and the multitudes of small creatures [also] caught his attention." During his ten-month stay along the Toklat River he befriended several Kantishna miners and also met some market hunters, but so far as is known, he met few if any area Natives. [3]

Sheldon hatched the idea of a "Denali National Park"—based on a "heraldic display of wildlife posed against stupendous mountain scenery"—in a January 1908 journal entry. He did not immediately act on that idea, however. In August 1912, Congress passed an act that created an Alaska Railroad Commission; this was followed two years later by the Alaska Railroad Act, which paved the way for a government-backed railroad connecting the Gulf of Alaska with the Alaskan interior. Sheldon's concerns turned to alarm in April 1915, when President Wilson announced that the route to be followed, from Seward to Fairbanks, would go through the Nenana River Canyon, just east of the magnificent gamelands where he had lived and studied. [4] Worried that a railroad to the area would bring market hunters who would decimate the area's wildlife, Sheldon acted. Five months later, the influential Boone and Crockett Club, of which Sheldon was a longtime officer, formally endorsed a McKinley park proposal.

The park idea, once released to the public, soon captured the imagination of many members of the Eastern elite. But Alaskans, by contrast, were solidly against any bill that promised restrictions against hunting, either by setting bag limits, imposing unreasonably short hunting seasons, or instituting hunting closures over specified geographical areas. The McKinley park bill, realistically speaking, affected only one populated area. But that area—the Kantishna mining district—was well known to Alaska's delegate, James Wickersham (who had reconnoitered the area during his unsuccessful attempt to climb Mount McKinley in 1903), and the park proposal called for much of the Kantishna area to be surrounded by parkland. Wickersham was normally a conservationist; he was familiar with the park's backers and had attended several Boone and Crockett Club dinners over the years. [5] But in order to mollify his Kantishna-area constituents, he demanded that language be inserted into the park bill allowing local prospectors and miners to "take and kill game or birds therein as may be needed for their actual necessities when short of food; but in no case shall animals or birds be killed in said park for sale or removal therefrom, or wantonly." [6]

Given that language, the McKinley park bill passed the Senate unanimously in 1916 and—largely on the basis of a National Geographic Magazine article that appeared the following January—House action quickly followed. What emerged from the legislative battle was the nation's second largest national park. (Only Yellowstone was larger.) But from the point of view of subsistence users, the bill was particularly remarkable because Mount McKinley, unlike any other national park or monument, legalized subsistence hunting, at least under certain conditions. For more than a decade following the bill's passage, Mount McKinley was the only national park where local hunters legally enjoyed that privilege. [7]

It was clear from the Congressional hearings preceding the park's establishment that the protection of game populations from market hunters was the park's primary goal, and the NPS's management activities during the park's initial years were also clearly focused in that direction. But the agency's work was severely hampered by a lack of money. Although the park bill passed in early 1917, Congress did not vote to authorize operating funds until midway through the 1920-21 fiscal year, and the first NPS representative—Superintendent Henry P. "Harry" Karstens—did not arrive until June 1921. [8] During those intervening four years, the government railroad crept ever closer to the park. Some feared the worst about the effect of that access on game populations; one area visitor noted that "there has been great destruction of game and fur-bearing animals" in the park, while another feared that "the Mt. McKinley Park meat hunters appear to be slaughtering without stint." A Kantishna-based observer, however, flatly stated in a February 1920 letter [quoted verbatim] that these accounts are

all Pipedream Stories and not founded on facts ... to my knowledge the Scheep are holding their own, the Caribou have incrased enormously ... and the Moose are the only ones that are loosing out, on account of the Cow-killing especially by Indians in the late Winter. The Indian never goes any further then his Belly drives him, when Fish are plenty they never come in in here; but the last 3 years Salmon wher Scarce and the Indians had to get meat. If you want to save the Game, feed the Indians in Fishless Years. [9]

Once on the ground, Karstens—who had lived in the north country for more than twenty years and was locally known as the "Seventy Mile Kid"—was forced to work virtually from scratch. Operating on the most meager of budgets, he and his assistants had to to spend much of their time constructing park buildings—either near McKinley Park Station, at the present-day headquarters complex, along the park road, or at various perimeter locations. The cabins along the perimeter, and along the park road as well, supported extended ranger patrols against market hunters, and by the late 1920s depredations against the park's wildlife were becoming increasingly rare. Rangers recognized, however, that the original park boundaries had failed to include some of the most favorable sheep and caribou habitat. So to better protect the area's megafauna, the park's boundaries were expanded in 1922 and again in 1932. [10]

As noted in the previous chapter, the NPS, on a nationwide basis, had an inimical attitude toward hunters during this period; it was explicitly mentioned in both Secretary Lane's 1918 letter to Director Mather, and was mentioned again in Secretary Work's 1925 letter. [11] That attitude, combined with the clear recognition that much of the early park rangers' effort at Mount McKinley was being expended to combat the depredations of market hunters, did not bode well for the legitimate rights of area subsistence hunters.

Part of the problem, Karstens soon learned, was one of definition. The park's enabling act specifically allowed local residents to "take and kill game or birds therein as may be needed for their actual necessities when short of food," but what was the difference between gathering "actual necessities when short of food" (by prospectors and miners) and poaching (by market hunters and recreational sportsmen)? NPS officials in Washington, in 1921, sent Karstens a series of strongly-worded draft regulations, which empowered park staff to punish violators of the poaching ban with the confiscation of their game and their hunting outfits. They were less helpful, however, in formulating a system that would prevent market hunters and poachers from masquerading as prospectors and miners. Karstens, asked for his opinion on the matter, pushed for a regulation that would allow local miners to feed game meat to their dogs under hardship conditions, and he also pushed for a special exception for two local Indian groups, who often engaged in springtime hunting in the park because they had exhausted the dried and smoked fish supply laid out the previous summer. The final regulations did not specifically allow for either provision. They did, however, require that prospectors and miners keep tabs of the game that they killed, and on an informal basis, NPS officials let it be known that the local Indians' needs for food was a delicate issue, suggesting that enforcement actions against them be undertaken only under egregious circumstances. [12]

The obvious ambiguities regarding the hunting provision became a headache to Karstens almost as soon as he arrived at the park; conservationists railed about the wanton killing of park game, while those representing the mining constituency propounded opposing arguments. At times, such as when Interior Secretary Work prepared his 1923 report to the president, concern over wanton game killing (justified or not) rose to such heights that proposals were made to repeal the hunting provision. But his recommendation was not backed up by either Congressional action or by a sufficient park budget to hire a sufficient ranger force to terminate poaching and market hunting. (From 1922 to 1924, Karstens and an assistant ranger comprised the entire park staff.) And the difficulty in identifying deserving game users finally forced Karstens to urge a change in the regulation. As he noted in a January 1924 letter,

My recommendation would be to close the park to all hunting. As long as prospectors are allowed to kill game, just as surely will the object of this park be defeated. Any townie can take a pick and pan and go into the park and call himself a prospector. This is often the case. Compromises will not do, for compromises only leave loopholes for further abuse. [13]

Karstens's letter gave further evidence to those who hoped to repeal the hunting provision. Meanwhile, problems continued. A park ranger, for example, cited local resident Jack Donnelly for killing and transporting game from the park, but a local jury, in February 1924, failed to convict him "because of the reluctance of the people ... to convict anyone for illegal hunting." That same month, influential Outside outdoorsman William N. Beach was convicted of illegally killing a sheep in the park after openly boasting of the deed to a Washington NPS official. (He was fined $10 and court costs.) And as late as 1927, Chief Ranger Fritz Nyberg was well aware that there were at least 25 trappers operating along the park's boundaries, "practically all" of whom "have dogs that are fed from caribou and sheep." But neither funds nor cabins were sufficient to patrol the park's boundary and prevent depredations. [14]

Those who, in light of today's attitudes, were genuine park-area subsistence users were treated unevenly when discovered by NPS rangers. So far as the records indicate, no local non-Natives were cited for slaughtering game meat in the park, primarily because rangers, on their patrols, discovered that virtually every person found with a freshly-killed animal claimed to be a prospector or miner. Once, however, Natives were arrested under similar circumstances. On November 15, 1924, a park ranger caught two Nenana men, Enoch John and Titus Bettis, with four freshly-killed sheep within the park boundary. The two men freely admitted their guilt and were "pretty well scared and repentant" to park officials. But they committed their offense because of ignorance: "some of the white men around Healy" had advised them that these hunting grounds were outside of the park, and park officials were also quick to recognize that John's health was poor, his eyesight was failing, and his family's "living conditions were bad and they had very little food in the house." Superintendent Karstens, asked to resolve the matter, simply asked the two Natives to sign an affidavit acknowledging their act, and he also admonished them "to use their good influence with the tribe and tell them they must not hunt in the park." Acting Director Arno Cammerer, upon receiving Karstens's report, congratulated him on the "excellent manner in which you handled these cases" and that "publishing your disposition of these cases in Healy was good business and will be helpful." [15]

Karstens's January 1924 letter, as it turned out, proved critical in the battle over the fate of the park's controversial hunting provision. The letter, combined with other reports that documented wholesale killing of park wildlife, jolted park protectors into convening the following month and organizing an anti-hunting legislative strategy. That strategy finally bore fruit on May 21, 1928, when Congress repealed the hunting provision. For more than fifty years after the passage of that act, hunting of all types was prohibited in Mount McKinley National Park. [16]

Map 3-1. National Parklands in Alaska, 1971.
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

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Last Updated: 14-Mar-2003