Frequently Asked Questions

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NPS/Josh Spice

Throughout the years, Anchorage, Fairbanks, Ketchikan and Tok information centers have received thousands of inquiries from visitors in the United States, Canada, and across the entire world. This frequently asked question page is the fruit of over two decades of visitor inquiries. Enjoy the answers and feel free to submit your own questions via e-mail.

 

Frequently Asked Questions

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"An allusion has been made to the Homestead Law. I think it worthy of consideration, and that the wild lands of the country should be distributed so that every man should have the means and opportunity of benefitting his condition."

— Abraham Lincoln, 1861

The Homestead Act of 1862

In the mid 1800's, with economic and social changes gripping the developed eastern states of the union, people were increasingly looking west to the vast underdeveloped lands and the romantic vision of a new opportunity. The US government had tried in the past to make land in the west available for private purchase but the costs were still prohibitive for many families and settlement of the west had been slow. The idea to provide free land to homesteaders willing to develop the land was eventually introduced and met with some resistance, but finally in 1862 president Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act into existence and the law took effect on January 1st 1863. The new legislation made 160 acres of land in one of the western states or territories available to people willing to live on the land for 5 years, develop the land for agriculture and build a house on the land. At the end of 5 years, if those requirements had been accomplished, that person could then receive full ownership of their 160 acre parcel. This opportunity would continue for over 123 years and prove instrumental in not only developing the western states but allowing millions of Americans to own their own private parcel of land.

Homesteading in Alaska

Although the Homestead Act was enacted in 1862, it was not until 1898 that special legislation extended the provisions of the act to the territory of Alaska. Even with the lure of free land however, homesteading in the remote territory was slow to start due to poor weather and poor soils and by 1914 less than 200 homestead applications had been filed in Alaska. A surge did come however in Alaska homestead applications after WWII and the Vietnam War. Those 20th century pioneers were looking for the same land ownership opportunity that had lured settlers out to the western states 100 years before. They also encountered many of the same hardships as their homesteading brethren of the 19th century such as lack of transportation, harsh weather, and even the danger of local wildlife. The Homestead Act was finally repealed in 1976, but a provision of the repeal allowed for homesteading to continue in Alaska until 1986.

The last Homestead to be awarded under the provisions of the Homestead Act was in 1988. The owner of that land, Kenneth Deardorff originally filed for his 80 acre parcel on the Stony River in Alaska in 1974. He and his family built a life in the remote roadless Alaska wilderness through persistence and by subsisting off the local landscape. By the time Kenneth Deardorff finally received the patent for his land in 1988, 3,277 homesteads had been conveyed in the state which equaled over 360,000 acres or less than 1% of the total land in Alaska.

Over 150 Years of Heritage

The Homestead Act proved to be one of the most influential pieces of legislation in development of the American west. The effects of millions of Americans picking up their lives and moving to new strange lands where they had to make a new life with little more then their own sweat and persistence has been far reaching in the history of the country. By 1988 when the last homestead land was finally conveyed, roughly 10% of the total land in the U.S. had been given away as homesteads and estimates put the number of descendants of homesteaders alive today at 93 million people (as of 2007).

Although homesteading itself is no longer a thing, some people still try to live that lifestyle of working and living off the land. We will always cherish the fact that homesteading is an important part of Alaska's culture and history.

Keep up to date on the currents wildfires in Alaska, especially during our summer season. Summer is when Alaska is the driest and the warmest causing a lot of wildfires spread out on our lands. You can find out more information about wildfires in Alaska on the Alaska Interagency Wildfires website.

Managing Fires in Alaska

AICC Current Fires Map of Alaska

  • At certain periods during a fire season, wildfires can be so widespread, numerous, or burning so hot that they cannot be put out easily.
  • Fire is a natural part of Alaska’s ecosystem. Many positive benefits of fire have been recognized.
  • Fire-suppression efforts sometimes are more damaging than the wildfire.

Fire is a part of the natural environmental cycle as well as a potential destroyer of life, property, and resources.

In remote and unsettled areas, fires are monitored to assure they do not burn unchecked toward areas where human life or development could be threatened. This cooperative AICC plan is working well and has saved millions of local, state, and federal tax dollars.

Launch Alaska Interagency Wildfire newsfeed in a new tab

In Alaska, there are tons of edible and delicious plant life, but there are a number of plants with potentially harmful effects too. It is essential for any outdoor adventurer to be aware of their presence and prepare a plan in the case of emergency. Many poisonous plants can strongly resemble an edible plant at first glance. One safety tactic is to teach children to stay away from all berries. Make sure an adult decides that a berry is safe before taking a bite. A good rule is to not eat anything in the wild unless you can positively identify it without question. It is also suggested to always travel into Alaska's backcountry with a regional guidebook or plant and berry species index.

Part of the fun of berry picking is exploring rural Alaska foliage. This type of wilderness is also home to many other critters. It is easy to stumble upon a bear enjoying a berry snack as well. Make sure you make a lot of noise to alert the bears of your presence and know how to handle an encounter with ease. Be aware of all wilderness elements in Alaska for the best experience possible!

Baneberry / Snake Berry / Doll’s Eyes

Scientific Name: Actaea rubra (Interior), Actaea arguta (coastal)
Habitat: Woods and dry hillsides
Leaves: This deciduous plant has a single stock. The leaves are large 3 to 5-parted, finely toothed, and narrow-pointed. Appearance and width of leaves change radically with the season: narrow and crinkled in the spring, broad in the summer.
Flowers: In May and June, small white clusters appear above the leaves.
Fruit: In July and August, a red or white, opaque, shiny berry develops with a black dot at the end. Each berry also has its own elongated stem.
Effects: The berries are poisonous and will often send the heart into cardiac arrest.

Black Twinberry / Bearberry Honeysuckle

Scientific Name: Lonicera involucrata
Habitat: This plant prefers moist woods in a few scattered spots in Southeastern Alaska.
Leaves: Black Twinberry is a deciduous shrub that stands up to 6 feet tall, is lance-shaped, and has leaves up to 5 inches long.
Flowers: In June the leaves are yellow, tubular, and grow in pairs.
Fruit: In August, black, soft, round berries form.
Effects: Though the berries can be edible, they are not tasty and the plant is notorious for absorbing toxins from the ground and nearby water. Some people may have a higher sensitivity to the absorbed toxins with a range of varied symptoms.

Devil’s Club

Scientific Name: Oplopanax horridus
Habitat: This plant grows in moist forest habitats, and is most abundant in conifer forests.
Leaves: The leaves are spirally arranged on the stems and are 8 to 16 inches across. The plant grows up to almost 5 feet tall. The spines are found covering the stems as well as along the upper and lower surfaces of veins of its leaves.
Flowers: The flowers are produced in dense clusters or umbels 4 to 8 inches in diameter, each flower is small, with five greenish-white petals.
Fruit: The fruits are small red berries with pits about .25 inches in diameter that grow in clusters (drupes).
Effects: The plant is painful to the touch due to the numerous spines that break off easily. Furthermore, consumption of the drupes is believed to be fairly toxic to humans.

Queen’s Cup / Blue Bead / Single-Flowered Clintonia

Scientific Name: Clintonia uniflora
Habitat: This plant grows in moist forests at lower elevations.
Leaves: The leaves are 3 to 6 inches long. Each plant has 3 fleshy leaves with hairy edges.
Flowers: In June, white flowers appear that are about 1 inch in diameter with 6 tepals.
Fruit: In August, the plant develops a blue berry.
Effects: Though eaten regularly by birds and animals, the berry may be toxic to people. Considering the berry is not palatable anyway, it is best to consider this berry inedible.

Red-Twig Dogwood / Red-Osier Dogwood

Scientific Name: Cornus stolonifera
Habitat: Red-Twig Dogwood grows at the edges of moist land or lakes at low elevations.
Leaves: This is a deciduous shrub that grows 5 to 15 feet tall. It contains elliptical or oval leaves that are dark green on top and somewhat hairy below.
Flowers: In June, the shrub produces flowers that are white, with four small green sepals.
Fruit: In August, the shrub produces a small white berry that is soft and has a small spot at the end.
Effects: The berry is bitter, considered inedible, and will cause minor irritation if ingested.

Snowberry / Waxberry

Scientific Name: Symphoricarpos albus
Habitat: Snowberry grows in woodlands at lower elevations
Leaves: This is a deciduous shrub that grows to 4 feet in height. The leaves are oval, and grow up to 3 inches in length. The leaves grow on opposite sides of a stem and are dark green above, and white beneath.
Flowers: In June, the flowers are pink and white, small, and bell-shaped.
Fruit: In August, the plant develops berries that are white, round, soft and opaque.
Effects: Although the berry is an important winter food source for some birds, it is considered poisonous to humans. The berries contain alkaloids that cause mild symptoms of vomiting and dizziness.

Arrowgrass

Scientific Name: Triglochin maritima
Habitat: Arrowgrass prefers several types of moist soil and can grow in water. It can tolerate strong wind, but not maritime exposure. Prefers salt marshes and grassy areas near the sea.
Leaves: This plant usually grows 6-18 inches tall, but the slender flower stalks may reach 5 feet.
Flowers: Small, green flowers appear close together along the upper part of the stalk early in the season. Later, the flowers develop into golden-brown.
Fruit: Not applicable.
Effects: When Arrowgrass is dry, it contains hydrocyanic acid which, when ingested in quantity, can result in death from respiratory failure.

Cow Parsnip

Scientific Name: Heracleum maximum
Habitat: This plant grows in moist, shaded habitats and can thrive in multiple types of soil.
Leaves: Cow Parsnip is a tall herb, reaching to heights of over two meters. The leaves are very large, up to 18 inches across and divided into lobes.
Flowers: Cow Parsnip has characteristic flower umbels that are about 20 cm across; these may be flat-topped or more rounded, and are always white.
Fruit: Not Applicable
Effects: The sap of this plant contains various phototoxic chemicals that can make the skin (especially light skin) extremely sensitive to sunlight and more prone to sunburn. Skin contact with juice from the plant followed by exposure to sunlight can cause dermatitis, which can range from a mild, red rash to severe skin blistering. Simply avoid touching the plant with bare skin by wearing long sleeves and long pants.

Death Camas

Scientific Name: Anticlea elegans
Habitat: Death Camas grows in areas along streams and in forest clearings and meadows from about 6000 to 12000 feet in the mountains.
Leaves: The leaves are linear, smooth, and have parallel veins.
Flowers: The flowers appear saucerlike, with 6 white petals and 6 stamen. The flowers spiral around the stalk (raceme).
Fruit: Not applicable
Effects: The effects of the toxic alkaloids may appear from 1-8 hours after eating the plant. Recovery usually occurs within 24 hours. Symptoms include excessive salivation, burning and numbness of the lips and mouth, thirst, headache, dizziness, nausea, stomach pain, persistent vomiting, diarrhea, muscular weakness, confusion, slow and irregular heartbeat, low blood pressure, subnormal body temperature.

Skunk Cabbage

Scientific Name: Lysichiton americanum
Habitat: Skunk Cabbage is found in wet woodlands and meadows.
Leaves: The leaves are large, thick, and can grow up to 40 inches in length. These plants are often associated with a strong odor similar to a skunk.
Flowers: From April to June, these plants are small and yellow on a thick spike surrounded by a large yellow spathe.
Fruit: In August, these plants are green, soft, and sparse.
Effects: Considered inedible, Skunk Cabbage contains poisonous acids that can irritate the gastrointestinal system.

Wild Calla

Scientific Name: Calla palustris
Habitat: This plant can be found in shallow water along the edges of lakes and slow-moving streams.
Leaves: The leaves are heart-shaped on a thick stem that grow from creeping rootstocks. The leaves are thick and shiny.
Flowers: In June and July, very small green flowers develop on a dense spike atop a large white heart-shaped spathe.
Fruit: In August, this plant forms a soft red berry.
Effects: The entire plant contains poisonous acids and saponin-like substances that will irritate the mouth and throat and can cause severe swelling.

Resources

Pratt, Verna E. Alaska's Wild Berries and Berry-like Fruit. Anchorage, AK: Alaskakrafts, 1995. Print.
Tilford, Gregory L. Edible and Medicinal Plants of the West. Missoula, MT: Mountain Pub., 1997. Print.
Welcome to the PLANTS Database | USDA PLANTS. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Aug. 2012.

Last updated: August 5, 2022

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