The Cooperative Park Studies Unit: Dynamic University-Based Research in the Parks

Frank Norris and Becky Saleeby

A CPSU anthropologist in front of a cabin.
Figure 1. CPSU anthropologist David Libbey in front of Old John’s cabin at Old John Lake, near Arctic Village in 1979.

David Libbey

On December 18, 1971, President  Richard Nixon signed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) into law. This act contained a specific clause, known as “d-2,” that commenced a chaotic, nine-year-long “land rush” of unprecedented proportions. What ensued was a frantic  period of study, evaluation, and advocacy that would forever transform Alaska land ownership patterns. The National Park Service was at the vortex of much of this chaos, because a variety of advocacy groups (plus many in the organization  itself) recognized that millions of acres of  federally-owned Alaska land had the potential to be part of national park  units – and, indeed, tens of millions of acres would, in December 1980, become absorbed into various national parks,  monuments, and preserves.

Soon after Nixon signed ANCSA, NPS leaders concerned about Alaska drew up a list of potential park areas and began the process of gathering resource information about those areas. At first, they had little information upon which to draw, and  more help was needed. As the accompanying interviews illustrate in  greater detail, a major instrument for gaining new knowledge about Alaska’s existing and potential parklands was the Cooperative Park Studies Unit (CPSU), which was established at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) in the spring of 1972. This research unit consisted of the Biology and Resource Management Program, headed by Dr. Frederick Dean, and the Anthropology and Historic Preser-vation Program, headed by longtime NPS anthropologist Zorro Bradley.


Research up until 1972

In December 1971, however, all that was in the future. At that time, the NPS had just four units in Alaska: Sitka National Monu-ment in southeastern Alaska, Glacier Bay National Monument also in the southeast, Mt. McKinley National Park between  Anchorage and Fairbanks, and Katmai  National Monument at the base of the Alaska Peninsula. 

Except for Sitka, the reasons for  establishing each of Alaska’s park units had been purely scientific. In 1917, Congress had passed the bill establishing Mt. McKinley National Park in order to protect the area’s remarkable sheep, cari-bou, and other megafauna populations. A year later, President Wilson had proclaimed Katmai National Monument in order to protect the area surrounding the massive volcanic explosion that had wreaked such havoc in June 1912. And in 1925, President Coolidge had set aside a large area of tidewater glaciers and surrounding coun-tryside, forming Glacier Bay National  Monument. The establishment of each of these areas had been sponsored by influential national organizations, and in most cases these groups sponsored  significant studies. But information about the broad array of natural and cultural resources in the various parks and monu-ments, as originally designated, was sorely lacking. And given the fact that the acreage of these units was substantially expanded over the years (Mt. McKinley had  expanded twice, and Katmai three times), the lack of basic knowledge further exacerbated the NPS’s inability to manage the agency’s resources.

Given its perennial fiscal strait-jacket, the NPS did what it could during these early days to gather information about natural and cultural resources. Mt. McKinley, because it was a national park, had garnered the lion’s share of attention. During the 1920s and early 1930s, the park had attracted well-known government scientists Joseph Wright and George Dixon; in addition, researchers from the University of California, University of Wyoming, and other venues made  summer-long research trips. And beginning in the late 1930s, the park had the good fortune to obtain the services of biologist Adolph Murie, to work on the vexing wolf-sheep controversy. Murie enjoyed the park and its wildlife so much that he remained at the park, off and on, until the late 1960s to study bears, birds, small mammals, and vegetation. 

The University of Alaska’s Fred Dean, working through the Alaska Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, began studies in the park in 1957. Park rangers and park naturalists also played a valuable research role through their day-to-day observations of the park’s common and  unusual mammals, birds, and plant life, and some of these observations formed the  basis for ongoing reports to Washington. Cultural resource investigations were almost entirely ignored during the park’s early years, but in 1960 a chance discovery by a geological field crew brought forth the first archeological work, by University of Alaska experts, along the Teklanika River (Norris 2005)

laska’s two large national monu-ments, by contrast, were subject to far less  scientific scrutiny. This was primarily  because both Glacier Bay and Katmai, being largely inaccessible by most common-carrier transportation, were monuments in name only. Until 1950, they had no budget, which also meant that they were not staffed, either in winter or  summer. Therefore, no ongoing agency research took place. At Katmai, the monu-ment received an extended 1930 visit from biologist Robert F. Griggs, who observed plant succession patterns on the margins of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes and  appraised the area’s brown bear habi-tat. Griggs recommended that Katmai’s  boundaries be expanded, primarily to  ensure high quality bear habitat. The  Interior Department agreed and drew up a presidential proclamation that more than doubled Katmai’s acreage. In April 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed it into law.

At Glacier Bay National Monument, the major scientific presence during this period was William O. Field, a Harvard glaciologist. Field first visited the bay in 1926 and returned every few years for another forty years. In 1932, the agency sent wildlife biologist Joseph Dixon to the monument, and six years later he  returned with the NPS’s chief forester, John D. Coffman. Both visits were aimed at collecting bear habitat data. After the 1938 trip, a proclamation to expand the monu-ment was forwarded to Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, and in April 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the measure into law.

During the early 1950s, NPS  officials organized the Katmai Project, an interdisciplinary study effort funded primarily by the Defense Department. Scientists from universities as well as public agencies fanned out across the monument and produced a series of papers related to a wide variety of  scientific fields. Among their findings,  scientists discovered that the site of the June 1912 eruption was Novarupta, not Mount Katmai; another key contribution was Victor Cahalane’s biological survey. Beginning in 1960 and for more than a decade thereafter, Katmai was the scene of studies for both natural and cultural resources. They included seismic and volcanic investigations by personnel from the University of Alaska’s Geophysical  Institute; bears in the Brooks Camp area by Fred Dean of the University of Alaska; and archeological reports of the Brooks River and Shelikof Strait areas of the monument by Don Dumond (1965, 1971) and his crews from the University of Oregon. 


Women standing in front of a sod house.
Figure 2. Two women and sod house – CPSU anthropology research near confluence of Itkillik and Colville Rivers.

David Libbey

CPSU and post-1972 research

In 1972, NPS administrators stepped up research in the parks with a dynamic university-based program, the CPSU. The Biology and Resource Management arm of the program was established when there were few NPS scientists in Alaska. It operated out of Fred Dean’s office on the UAF campus and was staffed mostly by graduate students and other faculty  members. Although Dean had a wide interest in plants, insects, fish, and birds, he eventually shifted more toward mammals, particularly bears. Dean’s bear research began in Denali, when it was still Mt. McKinley National Park, and he and Adolph Murie clashed over Dean’s  suggestion to use transmitters to track these animals’ movements. Over the years, he co-authored several CPSU publica-tions on a project to compile exhaustive bibliographies of the literature on black and brown bears, in the hope that this data would prove useful for the management of bears in the parks.

Most of the CPSU research of Dean and his colleagues was tied to resource concerns of several park units,  including the need to better understand hunting and harvesting in the Wrangell-St. Elias region. Besides the focus on the interactions between humans and individual species, such as wolves, caribou, Dall sheep, harbor seals, and humpback whales, there was also a push for broad biological surveys of the soils, flora and vegetation, birds, terrestrial mammals, and aquatic systems in two proposed national monuments: Bering Land Bridge and  Kobuk Valley. Resulting reports were not widely distributed except within the parks and the NPS Alaska Regional Office, but are still available at University of Alaska (UAA and UAF) libraries. 

The Anthropology and Historic Preservation Program arm of the CPSU operated separately from the natural  resources program, and had a different scope of duties. As discussed in Zorro Bradley’s interview, his team was origi-nally charged with identifying cultural resources to be included in the new park areas. However in 1974, Bradley managed to secure funding to help Native Regional Corporations, established under  ANCSA, to survey and inventory abandoned villages and camps,  archeological sites, and cemeteries that they were allowed to claim under Section 14(h)(1) of ANCSA (Libbey 1984). Implementation of these duties involved three federal agencies (NPS, Bureau of Land Management, and Bureau of Indian Affairs) and 12 Native regional corpora-tions (Williss 2005). Bradley cast a wide net in recruiting staff for the formidable amount of work to be accomplished, including field documentation of sites, interviews, archival research, and the  preparation of National Register of  Historic Places nominations for many of the sites.

Bradley was adamant about getting the results of CPSU fieldwork and research in print. He established a series of Occasional Papers of the Anthropology and Historic Preservation CPSU, published between 1976 and 1983. Among the 37 publica-tions on this list are some which pertain to nationally significant cultural resources  (National Historic Landmarks) within park boundaries, such as Melody Webb Grauman’s paper on the Kennecott Mines;  Robert Spude’s paper on the Chilkoot Trail; and Alice J. Lynch’s publication about Qizhjeh (Kijik), the large Dena’ina settlement in Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. Also included are regional overviews, such as an eight-volume set about the early days on Norton Sound and Bering Strait by Kathryn Koutsky.  Archeological site reports and subsistence studies are other publications in the  Occasional Papers series. Perhaps the most widely distributed of them was Tracks in the Wildland, a detailed portrayal of Koyukon and Nunamiut subsistence.

In 1982, NPS Alaska Regional  Director, John A. Cook, wrote to inform researchers at UAF that due to budgetary constrictions, there would be no more funding for the CPSU in the next fiscal year. In his letter (Cook 1982), Cook praised the CPSU for being “highly  productive and … turning out quality  research products.” Bruce Ream, who  became project leader for the Anthropology and Historic Preservation unit after Zorro Bradley retired in 1981, has said, “CPSU was a wonderful concept because of its flexibility. It was ultimately beneficial for the parks.” The legacy of the CPSU has been passed to natural and cultural resources staff now in the Alaska Regional Office and in parks units across the state, as well as to the Bureau of Indian Affairs who continues to administer the ANCSA section 14(h)(1) program (Pratt 2004).  During a decade of fieldwork, CPSU  biologists, anthropologists, archeolo-gists, and historians covered little-known  territory and investigated a breadth of  topics that still serve as baseline for  research and have enduring relevance to Alaskans today.



Assistance in locating CPSU  photos was generously provided by Robert  Drozda, David Libbey, Karl Gurcke, Ken Schoenberg, and A.J. Lynch. The assistance of former CPSU researchers Bruce Ream and Ken Pratt is also gratefully acknowledged.See complete list of CPSU reports at




Cook, John E. 1982.

Letter to Dr. John Bligh, Director,  Division of Life Science, UAF. On file at NPS, Alaska Regional Office, Anchorage.

Dumond, Don E. 1965.

Archaeological Survey in Katmai National Monument, Alaska. Final Report to the National Park Service (Contract 14-10-0434-1492). Department of Anthropology, University of Oregon, Eugene.

Dumond, Don E. 1971.

A Summary of Archaeology in the Katmai Region Southwestern Alaska. University of Oregon Anthropological Papers No. 2. Department of Anthropology, University of Oregon, Eugene.

Libbey, David. 1984.

CPSU – Its Birth, Death, and Distribution. Alaska Anthropological Association Newsletter 9(2): 5-10.

Norris, Frank. 2005.

A History of Science in Alaska’s National Parks. Alaska Park Science 4(2): 6-12.

Pratt, Kenneth L. 2004.

Observations on Researching and  Managing Alaska Native Oral History:  A Case Study. Alaska Journal of Anthro-pology 2(1-2): 138-153.

Ream, Bruce. 2008.

Notes from interview by NPS staff.  Anchorage, Alaska. 

Williss, G. Frank. 2005.

Do Things Right the First Time: The National Park Service and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980. Second edition. National Park Service. Denver, Colorado.

Part of a series of articles titled Alaska Park Science- Volume 8 Issue 1: Connections to Natural and Cultural Resource Studies in Alaska's National Parks.

Last updated: August 10, 2016