STATEMENT OF DON BARRY, ASSISTANT SECRETARY FOR FISH AND WILDLIFE AND PARKS, DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR, BEFORE THE HOUSE COMMITTEE ON RESOURCES, CONCERNING ACCESS TO NATIONAL PARKS IN ALASKA.

FEBRUARY 9, 2000


Mr. Chairman, members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to address the issue of access to national park lands in Alaska.

Enhancing access to national parks and the accommodation of visitors has been a priority for the National Park Service in Alaska. Putting in place the facilities and policies to keep Alaskan parks accessible while preserving their resources unimpaired for the benefit of future generations will remain a continuing challenge in this new century.

I will address several specific access issues that are currently before us, but first allow me to provide a quick snapshot of national parks in Alaska.

In the 20 years since the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) established 10 new national park and preserve units in Alaska, visitation to these areas has increased more than 300 percent. In 1999, for the second time in three years, recreational visits to Alaska parks topped 2 million people.

More than 300 businesses, a majority of which are based in Alaska, are now licensed to provide visitor services, most of which involve either access to or within national parks. These include small air taxi operators, hunting and fishing guides, and boat operators ranging from kayak rentals to large cruise ship lines. Thousands of Alaskans work in the tourism industry, an industry that in large part depends on the astounding variety of wildlands and wildlife that Alaska’s national parks and public lands offer.

Through appropriated funds and fee demonstration projects, we are continuing to improve the level of service and access available for those 2 million visitors. A few specifics:

Shuttle and tour bus use at Denali has increased about 18 percent over the last five years because better buses and better management are helping meet increased demand. Our frontcountry plan allows for growth above current levels, including facilities such as new trails that can be reached by private cars.

In short, we expect visitation to continue to rise. We have proposed more than $100 million in developments to better serve both Alaskan and non-Alaskan visitors. We would welcome your continued assistance in securing funding to build on the successes of the last 20 years.

Enhanced access to the wonders of national parks is not always measured by the miles of new road which have been constructed or the number of fish in the creel. We are now providing a more diversified kind of access involving schools around the country: taking Alaska’s national parks on the road through a partnership with public television, the Department of Education and scores of school districts. The third "Electronic Field Trip" which focuses on geology and the volcanic past of Katmai and Mount Rainier – is under way on four Fridays this month and has been subscribed to by schools with more than 1.5 million students and cable television systems reaching another 14 million people. Given the remoteness of some of our areas, this effort at expanding educational access to park resources is good for national parks in general, and for Alaskan parks in particular.

We are all aware that access to Alaska parks is often not easy. Roads in Alaska reach four of 15 park units – Klondike Gold Rush, Wrangell-St. Elias, Denali and Kenai Fjords. The Alaska Railroad goes to one park – Denali. Alaska is a young and lightly populated state; it is does not have two centuries of road and railroad building behind it like many states in the Lower 48. Airplanes and boats will continue to provide a significant means of access to parks for the foreseeable future. Congress recognized that in 1980 by providing specific motorized vehicle exemptions from the Wilderness Act and including specific access provisions for airplanes, motorboats, and snowmachines in the Alaska Lands Act, primarily in Title VIII and Title XI. Moreover, in 1986, the Department of the Interior further exercised its discretion under other statutory authorities to not limit motor boat and airplane and non-motorized surface transportation access to those persons conducting traditional activities as otherwise required under section 1110(a) of the Alaska Lands Act.

We have also worked with the Congress and Alaskans to make access easier. An example from Gates of the Arctic National Park illustrates the point. As a result of a 1983 land exchange, residents of remote Anaktuvuk Pass suffered under unworkable restrictions on all-terrain vehicle access for subsistence hunting. A 1992 agreement worked out by the Park Service and the local community and landowners recommended changing the ownership and wilderness status of more than a half-million acres (570,011). Congressional approval occurred in 1996, and our agreement is in place today and is working.

Another example, on the other end of the size scale, further illustrates this point. On the northwest corner of Denali, the Collins family had two small subsistence hunting and trapping cabins that supported their subsistence use of the park. Access was by dog team, and the cabins were in need of reconstruction. The projects were approved, the cabins rebuilt, and access continues in the traditional manner supporting the rural Alaska lifestyle of this Lake Minchumina family. It was an access issue that was quietly taken care of, exactly as Congress had intended.

We believe that when Congress passed the Alaska Lands Act, it did not turn its back on the primary conservation mission of national parks. Instead, it provided for a balance of uses while preserving the fundamental assets for which these parks were established. In a handful of instances, striking that balance has been difficult. While we recognize the rights of inholders and other landowners who depend on crossing national parks to reach their land, we must nevertheless ensure that such access is provided for in a reasonable and appropriate manner so as to allow for the long term protection of the values and resources of Park System units in Alaska. Two instances before the Park Service today are instructive as to how we are attempting to reconcile those responsibilities.

Title XI, section 1110(a), of ANILCA provides for access to conservation system units by snowmobiles (subject to adequate snow cover), airplanes, and motorboats, for "traditional activities" subject to reasonable regulations to protect the natural and other values of the conservation units– not, as some have characterized in recent discussions, for every use, everywhere. If that had been the case, we would have seen a very different legislative history.

As a part of a package of regulations for Denali, we have proposed a definition of "traditional activities" for Title XI that parallels the discussions in Congress some 20 years ago. The Congressional committees which forged the Alaska Lands Act compromise wanted to provide an opportunity for the "Alaska lifestyle" to continue, especially among those Alaska residents who would be most affected by the establishment of large conservation areas. The legislative history of section 1110(a) expressly identified examples of "traditional activities" that could be facilitated by use of snowmobiles, including, berry picking, fishing, hunting, and trapping. In addition to authorizing snowmobile use for these types of "traditional activities", Congress also authorized travel between villages and in support of subsistence activities. These were the types of utilitarian activities that Alaskans were most concerned about being eroded by the establishment of conservation units.

The legislative history on point addresses exclusively these types of consumptive activities. The problems for which a special provision in ANILCA was sought and on which the Committee reached agreement were described narrowly as a means of preserving a unique, Alaska lifestyle for those who would not qualify for Title VIII rights in the new units but whose activities were similar in kind to those protected in Title VIII. From these records, there is absolutely no suggestion that the Committee was requested, or that it intended, to protect all future snowmachine usage in the newly created conservation system units. Similarly, the record did not even suggest any application of these concerns to the existing Park System units in Alaska-Denali, Katmai and Glacier Bay, which had always remained closed to snowmobile activities. The discussion was about new conservation system units and the ability to maintain the existing uses of transportation in those units.

Likewise, the legislative history does not discuss conventional pursuits in national parks such as photography and sightseeing as further examples of what constituted "traditional activities" authorized to be conducted through snowmobile use under section 1110(a). These are activities that were and now remain legal in parks. They are not elements of the unique, Alaska lifestyle and were not even hinted to be a concern in the discussions and markup. If, as suggested now, that by merely packing a disposable camera or a sandwich, and observing the area around him or her, the snowmobile operator is engaging in three traditional activities, it was unnecessary for Congress to limit section 1110(a) usage to traditional activities, since then any use constitutes a traditional activity. We have seen no evidence of such an intent and understandably continue to have doubts as we fully examine the legislative history underlying this provision.

Because the statute is silent as to a definition, and the term "traditional activities" is ambiguous as used therein, it has been left to the Department to define the term. Before reaching a final decision on a regulatory definition, we intend to review and evaluate all of the legislative history we can locate, the Department's previous rulemakings interpreting section 1110(a), and the many comments received from the public on the issue.

Despite the lack of express Congressional intent to do so, section 1110(a) of the Alaska Lands Act was nevertheless worded in such a way that it opened the "old parks" to snowmobile use for "traditional activities" at the same time it did so for new ANILCA units or addition areas. We believe this was inadvertent – a view then stated by Deputy Under Secretary of the Interior Bill Horn, in a Department of the Interior press release dated April 6, 1983. (copy attached).

For more than a decade after the passage of the Lands Act, snowmobile use at Denali was not an issue. The Park Service believed it could continue the pre-1980 prohibition through superintendent's orders. As a practical matter, there was no demand for snowmobile riding in the park. The widespread recreational use we see today did not exist. The situation changed rapidly in the 1990's, bringing us to the events of the past 18 months.

In a recent court case, the District Court for Alaska found that it could not determine if the February 1999 decision of the NPS to close temporarily the former Mount McKinley portion of Denali National Park to snowmachines was arbitrary when the NPS analysis applied no definition to distinguish between the impacts of snowmachine use for "traditional activities" under Section 1110(a), and the impacts from snowmachine use for other than "traditional activities." The Park Service subsequently provided a definition of "traditional activities" in the proposed permanent snowmobile closure regulations for Denali National Park published on November 12, 1999 in the Federal Register.

When NPS and I first considered the February 1999 temporary closure, we sought to approach the issue of snowmachining in the old park on a basis that we believed was unique to that area. As the subsequent litigation progressed and as we considered the issue of a permanent closure, we saw that there was a need to define the term "traditional activities" for all park units in Alaska. Accordingly, the NPS proposed the definition of traditional activities published for comment in the Federal Register of November 12, 1999. The December court ruling confirmed the need for the definition. Consistent with the Department’s regulations at 43 CFR Part 36, this definition would have to be applied to the facts pertaining to each particular park unit to determine what are in fact traditional activities within that unit.

In terms of the public closure process required by Section 1110(a) and NEPA, we have also published an environmental assessment which analyzes the damage that snowmobiles could do to "old Denali" if they were to be used regularly for recreational purposes for the first time in the old park’s history.

The Park Service has held public hearings and taken more than two months of public comment on the Denali snowmobile closure proposal. By more than a 9-to-1 margin, including a 9-to-1 margin among Alaska residents, the public believes our actions for old Denali are correct. While this level of public support is reassuring, I can assure the Committee that before we reach a final decision on any definition of "traditional activities," we will have thoroughly examined both the legislative history and the Department’s various rulemakings implementing Section 1110(a), and the specific requirements imposed by the District Court in Alaska with respect to the previous temporary snowmachine closure in the old park.

The wildlife and other values which nearly 400,000 visitors enjoy each year depend on our careful stewardship of old Denali’s wilderness core. Snowmobiles could bring noise to an otherwise immensely silent place; changes to the dynamics of predator and prey relationships that have evolved for centuries with little interference from people; changes to the landscape that is revered by thousands of summer visitors who now look out on tundra tracked only by the hooves of caribou, moose and sheep; interference with research studies that use old Denali for comparison study with areas that experience resource gathering and motorized impact; and interference with the historic users of Denali’s wilderness core – dog mushers, snowshoers, and skiers.

With regard to snowmobile access to the other two-thirds of Denali, we expect that snowmobile use will continue there for traditional activities like sport and subsistence hunting and trapping, to the extent that they occur, subject to reasonable planning and regulations. Further, we expect that the back country planning process now underway for the Park will determine where snowmachine use for other-than-traditional activities is appropriate in the non-wilderness areas.

Thus, while we do not believe that recreational snowmobiling, that is not part of a traditional activity, is protected by section 1110(a), the Service does intend to identify non-wilderness areas in Denali where such recreational use of snowmobiles is appropriate under the Park Service Organic Act.

The second current issue before the Park Service on access focuses on Title XI 1110(b) of ANILCA, which requires that landowners whose property is effectively surrounded by parkland be provided with "adequate and feasible access for economic and other purposes," and that these access provisions "be subject to reasonable regulations issued by the Secretary to protect the natural and other values of such lands."

It is these provisions that are driving the current environmental impact statement process for the Spruce 4 development proposal in Denali.

The owners of this parcel bought the land on June 27, 1997. They were not surrounded by a national park against their will – they outbid the Park Service for a former mining claim in hopes of building a lodge that would require access across national park lands and waters. The value of Spruce 4 was once thought to be in the gold that sat under those 20 acres. It is not. The surrounding park – and the resources it holds managed for conservation – is the golden appeal of a lodge at Spruce 4.

While the Spruce 4 owners finished their access application in January 1998, clarifying information continued to come in until February 1999. As a result of the early evaluation work done by the Park Service and others, the owners changed their preferred access route; their first choice would have had passenger buses fording Moose Creek – an anadromous fish stream – 24 times per trip. This route is opposed by the State of Alaska and the Army Corps of Engineers. The EIS process further identified likely periods when the route would be impassable because of high water.

Title XI of the Alaska Lands Act sets out various timetables for agencies to render decisions. Time extensions are allowed by law. Two extensions for the review of Spruce 4 were used and discussed with the applicant. The law also provides for applicants to shoulder the cost of this environmental review. The Spruce 4 owners have paid about one-third of the cost, or $100,000 – a cost agreed to by the applicant. The selection of a course of action among the alternatives presented in the draft EIS is expected this Spring.

The timetable for Spruce 4 has been driven by its complexity, the changing nature of the application, and the need for acquiring and analyzing adequate environmental data for the purposes of NEPA. A lesser effort would have shortchanged the American public’s interest in this national park.

Aside from routinely processed applications for access to lands adjacent to the road in Kantishna, there have been relatively few Title XI applications at Denali or other parks. The reason is that the Alaska Lands Act and the Department’s regulations implementing it allow considerable park access without the need for permits. In general, private individuals making aircraft landings, running a power boat, hiking, sport fishing, trapping or hunting, running dog teams, bicycling on park roads, camping or picnicking need no permit whatsoever. Access by commercial operators, however, has always required a permit from the NPS.

The proposed regulations regarding the Denali park road have their root in a system that has worked well for nearly 30 years. In 1972, with the opening of the George Parks Highway, the Park Service began shuttle bus service and placed limits on private and commercial vehicles using the road. Coupled with other management actions, this has kept the park road a premier attraction for the Alaska tourism industry while allowing appropriate access to private lands.

In 1986, the park general management plan was developed with public input, and authorized the limit of 10,512 vehicles during the summer. The 1996 entrance area and road corridor development concept plan and environmental impact statement included public input and reaffirmed that number. In fact, no public comment opposed the 10,512 figure. The proposed regulations codify something that has worked for 14 years.

With regard to ANILCA section 1110(b), Kantishna access will be provided. The proposed regulations provide the superintendent with the authority to annually evaluate anticipated use requirements and apportion vehicle permits among authorized users. This distribution system was also part of the 1996 plan. The allocations are based on recent use levels and allow for expansion.

Alaska’s parks will never be without controversy. There are too many complex land management issues to expect otherwise. The national parks of Alaska will continue to be places where opportunities for traditional activities will continue, consistent with the requirements of ANILCA.

In closing, we believe that Alaskans and out-of-state visitors have had reasonable and fair access to Alaska's national parks, access that is consistent with all of the requirements of ANILCA, including the Park Service's conservation mandate to preserve resources unimpaired for future generations. While reasonable people may disagree over individual management decisions and lawyers will inevitably read the same legislative provisions eighty different ways, our overall goal is straightforward and simple. We want to provide reasonable access for traditional activities, property effectively surrounded by park lands, subsistence uses, and the visiting public, consistent with the requirements of ANILCA and other applicable Federal laws.

This concludes my testimony. I would be happy to answer any of your questions.