Series: The Legacy of ANILCA

By Logan Hovis

With the creation of the ANILCA parks, the NPS in Alaska was forced to deal with the physical hazards associated with mining on a scale never before contemplated. The new parks were huge and the land therein had long been used for mining and other industrial purposes. Chief among the dangers were mine openings such as adits and shafts, abandoned explosives, and the collapsing fabric of the mines. Mine sites ranged in size from simple prospecting pits to expansive placer mining areas and on to the Kennecott mines complex.

Mine sites are attractive hazards drawing in the unwary and the unprepared—residents, visitors, and staff. Over the past 25 years, the NPS undertook an increasingly active and coherent program to identify, prioritize, and mitigate such hazards. Abandoned explosives became a major issue when a misinformed effort to eliminate explosives at the Stampede Mine caused the destruction of much of the site. Thereafter, the NPS brought Mike Shields to Alaska to develop a program of training, consultation, and disposal that provides the highest possible standard of safety for all concerned. Numerous classes in the hazards of old explosives and their identification have been held for park staff and, on several occasions, park residents. Literally tons of explosives and thousands of blasting caps have been removed from the landscape and destroyed.

Controlling access to underground workings was developed for public safety. A number of methods were used including foam plugs, slotted gates (accessible to bats but not humans), and the deliberate collapse of existing openings. Care was taken to ensure that the mine workings continued to drain and were ventilated to prevent different problems in the future. To date, 29 mine openings have been closed in parks as diverse as Glacier Bay, Kenai Fjords, Denali, and Wrangell-St. Elias.

Given the historical significance of many mining areas, explosives management and mine closure efforts have been coordinated closely with cultural and natural resource managers to identify the best approaches for mitigating often extreme hazards and protecting public and employee safety with cultural sensitivity.

Mine structures along with numerous other historic resources have been addressed through park maintenance programs and preservation efforts based on park needs and historical significance. Non-historic structures have been removed as funds allowed to improve the esthetics and safety of the mining districts. In other cases, structures in mining areas such as the Chisana and Bremner historic districts in Wrangell-St. Elias have been rehabilitated and opened as public-use cabins.