Mining in the Parks

By John Quinley
Semi-truck with two trailers hauling ore on a dusty, gravel road.
Trucks hauling ore concentrates across monument lands to the port and storage facility.

National Park Service photograph by Lynn Griffiths

The ANILCA parks were vast, but within their boundaries were existing private uses, even whole towns in a few cases. Mining was among the uses, both on parcels of patented property and on unpatented mining claims. Mining is subject to the Mining in the Parks Act of 1978, giving the NPS jurisdiction over mining plans of operation and their effects on neighboring park land. In 1985, the government was sued, with plaintiffs asserting the NPS had failed to meet its legislated responsibilities to protect Alaska’s park resources and account for the cumulative effects of mining. The courts eventually agreed, ruling that the

NPS had to consider the effects of past mining as it evaluated proposals for new mining.
That order initiated a lengthy series of environmental impact statements regarding mining in Denali National Park and Preserve, Wrangell-St. Elias and Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. Investigations were launched to look at resources in and near areas where there were concentrations of claims. The work included studies of water quality and flows, soils, vegetation, fish, wildlife, and historic resources.

There had been precursor studies of mining in parks, but the requirement for environmental impact statements brought about an effort to “gather more specific, in-depth information to try to assess the cumulative effects of mining on key resources, and determine how those effects related to the rest of the park,” remembered Alex Carter, a manager in the Mineral Resources Division of the NPS in the late 1980s (Personal communication, 2005).

The environmental impact statements established “resource protection goals,” essentially limits to the amount of change in resource categories such as vegetation. Resource managers could then compare past uses and impacts with proposed uses. In addition, the studies determined that the NPS should purchase mining claims in these park units and conduct restoration of the environment in the vicinity of previously mined areas in order to reestablish natural conditions and processes.

Resource protection goals, resource data, the study areas and other decisions made in the environmental impact statement process held up under public scrutiny and federal appeals court review, and became an integral part of evaluating new mining plans of operations in parks. In Yukon-Charley Rivers and Wrangell-St. Elias, the data also formed some of the first baseline resource studies for the new parks, a forerunner to the more recent and expansive Natural Resource Challenge.

Part of a series of articles titled The Legacy of ANILCA.

Denali National Park & Preserve, Wrangell - St Elias National Park & Preserve, Yukon - Charley Rivers National Preserve

Last updated: July 27, 2017