Alaska Subsistence
A National Park Service Management History
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Chapter 3:
SUBSISTENCE IN ALASKA'S PARKS, 1910-1971 (continued)

B. Katmai National Monument

The remote Katmai region of southwestern Alaska, which was little known at the time even to most other Alaskans, became world famous in early June 1912. An Aleutian Range volcano, which was then thought to be Mount Katmai, erupted with such force that it deposited several cubic miles of volcanic ash on the surrounding countryside. Scientists soon recognized that the explosion was one of the largest to be recorded in historic times. In its aftermath, scientists from both the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Geographic Society flocked to the area. A botanist from Ohio State University, Robert Fiske Griggs, headed NGS expeditions to the area during the summers of 1915, 1916, and 1917, and the publicity that followed his discovery of the "Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes" (the "smokes" were fumaroles, or jets of volcanic steam, that emanated from the valley floor west of the eruption site) captivated Interior Department officials to such an extent that President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the area a national monument in September 1918. [17]

In 1930, Griggs returned to the area—his first trip back since 1919—in order to study plant succession in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. Griggs entered the monument by ascending the Naknek River and by crossing the length of Naknek Lake; and despite the scope of his research, he was not oblivious to the area's remarkable fish and wildlife populations. As Griggs may or may not have known, his visit to the area took place in the midst of a long-running controversy over the protection of the Alaskan brown bear, and game-protection advocates beginning in 1928 had proposed either Admiralty Island or Chichagof Island (both in southeastern Alaska) as national monuments. NPS officials, at the time, were totally incapable of managing their existing national monuments (the agency's 1930 budget for all of the country's national monuments was only $46,000), so they had little interest in acquiring a new management area. But they did want to placate the wildlife conservationists, so after Griggs returned from his sojourn that year, Assistant Interior Secretary Ernest Walker Sawyer quizzed him about Katmai's brown bear populations. Sawyer, by his letter, sincerely hoped that Griggs would provide him ammunition that would justify the expansion of Katmai's boundaries so as to include areas of prime brown bear habitat. And to a large extent, Griggs' letter, dated November 22, 1930, did not disappoint; it noted that "the Katmai National Monument is the only place in the world where the great Alaskan brown bear can be preserved for posterity." He outlined a large area of brown bear habitat north, northwest, and northeast of the existing monument, one which, with small alterations, was accepted by Interior Department officials and signed by President Herbert Hoover five months later. Hoover's proclamation, signed April 24, 1931, more than doubled the monument's size; for more than 45 years thereafter, Katmai had more land area than any other NPS unit. [18]

Neither Wilson's nor Hoover's proclamations mentioned any human occupation of the area. [19] What may not have been widely known, however, was that former Native villages were included in both the original monument and area included in the 1931 expansion. These villages, along with several other longtime area habitation sites, both west of the Aleutian Range and along the Pacific littoral, had been evacuated as a result of the June 1912 eruption. The residents, fearful for their lives, had all moved voluntarily—the coastal inhabitants to Perryville, south of Chignik, and the interior villagers to New Savonoski, near Naknek—but before long, many of these residents yearned for their former homelands. New Savonoski residents, for example, made several attempts to resettle Old Savonoski, their former village, only to quickly recognize the impossibility of doing so because of the suffocating ash layer. [20] NPS officials, who had not yet set foot in the monument, were only vaguely aware of the former villages and had no inkling of any attempted resettlement efforts; had they been apprised of them, they would probably have resisted the Natives' efforts, assuming that the agency's conduct toward Katmai's Natives was similar to the way it had interacted with Natives elsewhere in the country (see Chapter 2).

Because of the area's remoteness—the Russian-era saying "God's in his heaven and the czar is far away" was still applicable here—area residents, both Native and non-Native, continued to use the monument for years after the monument's establishment. Because most of the area within the original (1918) monument was largely overlain by a foot or more of volcanic ash, few alternative uses were available for that land. But between 1918 and 1931, a number of Naknek-area residents began to filter into the area that Hoover would eventually include in the expanded monument. Trappers—some Native, others non-Native—were the most visible users; at least five lived legally in the monument each winter during the years that preceded Hoover's 1931 proclamation. Remote as the area was, the proclamation had no effect on area lifeways, and it was not until 1936 that an Alaska Game Commission officer visited the area and informed NPS officials of area trapping activity. Two years later a General Land Office investigator, A. C. Kinsley, spoke to most of the trappers and determined the legitimacy of their claims. (Those who had settled prior to 1931 were entitled to a claim to their trapping cabins but were not allowed to trap; those who came after 1931 could neither settle nor trap. To trappers, the distinction meant little.) Most moved out soon afterward, but a few had to be forcibly evicted. The onset of World War II diverted federal authorities to more critical wartime pursuits, and by the late 1940s it was discovered that a few trappers had returned to the monument. Those, however, were quickly routed, and by 1950 (when active, staffed management of the monument began) the problem had vanished. [21]

Reindeer herders, a primarily Native occupation that had been active since the 1890s, constituted a second group that moved into the monument during this period. According to Mount McKinley Superintendent Frank Been, who visited the park for several weeks in 1940, a herd of 10,000 reindeer had been brought "to the vicinity of the Naknek River ... sometime within the past 10 years," and that a portion of that herd "could graze into the north west corner of the park"—that is, in the area west of Lake Coville and north of Naknek Lake. At least one reindeer station was established in the monument at this time; it was located on Northwest Arm, near the northwestern end of Naknek Lake. This group left of its own accord prior to any intervention by NPS or other government officials. [22]

During the 1920s and 1930s, a number of local Native residents made annual hunting pilgrimages from either New Savonoski or South Naknek to the Savonoski River valley. (This valley was primarily outside the monument during the 1920s but was within its boundaries after April 1931.) Throughout this period these expeditions were scarcely noticed by the authorities, but when permission was asked to continue the practice, the NPS issued a denial and in 1939 the hunts came to a halt. [23]

Area Natives also carried on subsistence fishing activities in the monument. Louis Corbley, the Mount McKinley ranger who flew over the monument in 1937, landed at both Lake Brooks and "Old Village" (Old Savonoski, which had been abandoned since 1912), and in early September 1940, Superintendent Frank Been visited both Savonoski village and the two-cabin "fishing village" at the mouth of Brooks River. At the latter site, Been observed Native fishing activities—gill netting and fish drying on racks—and he also spoke at length with "One-Arm Nick" Melgenak, the "Native chief at New Savonoski." (As later testimony made clear, Melgenak and his family had made an annual trek to the site since 1924 if not before.) Been, who was accompanied by Fred Lucas, the Naknek-based U.S. Bureau of Fisheries agent, learned that the fish were "dried for dog food and for the Indian, who uses the fish for food, especially when money for white man's food runs low." He also learned that "the law permits taking salmon that are to be used for dog food, or food for the one who catches them. The salmon may be caught at any time and any place if the catch is to be used for dog food even though the product is for sales as dog food." Lucas estimated that 150,000 salmon spawned in either Brooks Lake or Brooks River, and although Natives harvested fewer than 10,000 of them, he "deplored the take of these fertile salmon because they were caught before they had deposited their eggs." [24]

So far as is known, the Melgenak family and other area Natives continued to visit the Brooks River mouth to harvest salmon each year during the 1940s. But in 1950, Northern Consolidated Airlines established a sport fishing camp nearby. Soon afterward, area Natives began to delay their arrival at the site until after the camp had closed for the season. Testimony collected during the 1980s consistently indicates that Natives arrived each year during the 1950s, but beginning about 1960 their visits became less frequent. [25] (They may also have harvested fish at other monument locations, but the NPS's presence at the monument during this period was so limited that the two groups rarely encountered one another away from Brooks Camp.) It was not until 1969 that the monument had become an independently-managed entity; by that time, Native fishing trips into the monument had all but ceased. [26]

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Last Updated: 14-Mar-2003