Winter & Shoulder Season Visitor Services Environmental Assessment

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The National Park Service has prepared the Winter and Shoulder Season Visitor Services Environmental Assessment (EA) to examine the services and facilities Denali offers to visitors during these times of year. Denali has experienced increases in winter and shoulder season visitation in recent years, with a greater number and diversity of visitors coming to the park in what has typically been known as the 'off season.' Park management is seeking ways to improve the winter and shoulder season visitor experience while preserving resources and the special character of Denali during these seasons.

This EA builds on the ideas generated during the winter and shoulder season planning effort and discussed in the 2019 Winter and Shoulder Season Plan.
 

Environmental Assessment (EA) Overview

Proposed Action


Actions proposed in this EA are:
  • Allow private vehicle access to the Denali Park Road (Park Road) west of Headquarters to the Teklanika rest area after the first winter weather event of the fall
  • Plow a portion of the Park Road during winter months, up to approximately mile 12 beginning in February
  • Install a seasonal footbridge near Mountain Vista to facilitate access to traditional winter routes
  • Create a connector trail for mushing access at the Mountain Vista rest area
  • Allow commercial guiding for non-motorized winter recreation in some areas of the Denali wilderness
  • Groom trails in the park entrance area, and potential trails in the Nenana River area
  • Allow concessioner transit and tour bus service starting May 10
  • Allow parking on the Park Road west of the Savage River for private vehicles during the shoulder seasons
  • Open the Savage River and Teklanika campgrounds earlier in the spring and later into the fall
  • Install facilities at the Teklanika rest area including parking lines, signs, and informational kiosks
  • Provide seasonally specific detail to established desired conditions
 

Why Does Denali Need this EA?

  • Marked increases in and diversification of winter and shoulder season visitation to Alaska in general and to parts of Denali National Park specifically
  • End of the five-year winter road plowing evaluation period authorized by the 2013 Winter Road Plowing Environmental Assessment and FONSI
  • A relative lack of guidance in existing planning documents related to park management during the winter and shoulder seasons
 

What Time of Year Does the EA Cover?

The EA concerns the winter and shoulder seasons in Denali, typically mid to late September through mid to late May.
For the purposes of this EA, the winter and shoulder seasons are defined based on the yearly cycle of park operations, particularly those concerning the accessibility of the Park Road. These operations shape the experiences available to visitors and the resource impacts from visitor use of the park. Many of these operations are contingent on weather conditions and are difficult to tie to a specific date each year.
  • The fall shoulder season begins the day after the last day of Road Lottery, typically in mid to late September.
  • The fall shoulder season transitions into the winter season when wintry weather closes the Park Road at the Headquarters gate near mile three of the Park Road, and it is not plowed open again when the weather breaks.
  • The winter season transitions into the spring shoulder season when spring road opening operations permit private vehicle traffic west of the Mountain Vista rest area, typically in mid-April.
  • The spring shoulder season transitions into summer when the full complement of summer services and facilities are open to the public, typically in mid to late May. This has included tour and transit bus service west of Teklanika, restriction of private vehicles west of the Savage River, operation of all entrance area facilities including the Denali Visitor Center and Denali Bus Depot, and the operation of all roadside campgrounds except Wonder Lake.
  • The term “shoulder seasons” refers to both fall and spring, outside of both winter and summer
 

EA Objectives

Given the uncertainty of future visitation, the park must remain flexible and not commit to providing for visitor numbers or needs that may never materialize. Conditions beyond the control of the NPS, such as winter temperatures, the length of daylight, and the seasonal habits of wildlife also impact what the park can provide for visitors. The NPS intends to provide sustainable visitor opportunities and facilities that will help the park provide for increased visitor numbers, regardless of unexpected changes to visitation and factors beyond the control of the NPS.
Affordable and straightforward access to wilderness and associated self-reliant recreation opportunities define Denali’s role in visitor services during the winter and shoulder seasons. In addition to providing access to wilderness recreation, any visitor services or opportunities offered in Denali should be consistent with other park values and principles as described in the 2014 Denali National Park and Preserve Foundation Statement and 2006 NPS Management Policies. These principles include an emphasis on education, history, the NPS tradition, and direct experiences of the natural world. Resource protection is a primary park value, and visitor use during the winter and shoulder seasons will be managed to preserve the vitality and integrity of the biotic, abiotic, cultural, wilderness, and other resources of the park. Visitor uses that are incompatible with these values and resource protection goals or that have only an indirect connection to them would more appropriately be experienced outside of Denali.
The fall, winter, and spring in Denali are special times of year that provide a contrast to the heightened activity, constant daylight, and crowds of summer. Visitors during the winter and shoulder seasons have valued these distinctions and the opportunity to experience Denali at a different pace, when the quiet, solitude, and freedom offered by the park are more apparent
Visitor access must be considered with the need for protection of park resources, and access should not come at the expense of resource protection. Access is appropriate when it does not have substantial impacts to park resources, and access will be managed to minimize resource impacts
Denali should be a welcoming place for all visitors. Visitor services and opportunities in the park will be consistent with park values and might not meet every visitor desire but will provide an engaging and inspiring national park experience for a wide range of visitor skill levels and interests.
Previous park management documents have emphasized that the visitor experience transitions to increasingly primitive environments as one travels west along the Park Road corridor. This has an impact on the types of services and visitor opportunities that may be appropriate and feasible in different areas of the park. Similarly, visitor opportunities that are appropriate along the road corridor might not be appropriate away from the road or other frontcountry areas.
A visit to Denali presents hazards at any time of year, but perhaps especially during the winter and shoulder seasons when park staffing is much lower than during the summer and environmental conditions can be extremely harsh. One way that the park can mitigate these hazards is by adequately communicating with potential visitors about the climate, driving conditions, daylight hours, and extent of visitor services and facilities that they can expect at these times of year. Inside park boundaries, the park should provide safe settings while maintaining opportunities for self-reliant recreation by modifying park procedures, facilities, or messaging rather than the wilderness character or environment of the park.
Communications with visitors are integral to how the NPS manages the winter and shoulder seasons in Denali and prepares visitors to experience the park during these times of year. Key messages about the winter and shoulder seasons include: 1. Denali is a special place, and this is a special time of year. The winter and shoulder seasons in Denali are different from summer in Denali. 2. Denali is a great place to explore exceptional wilderness year-round. 3. Being prepared for a winter or shoulder season visit will help you stay safe and have an enjoyable visit.

 

Issues Analyzed in the EA

Changes to the timing and nature of visitor use as a result of the proposed action could lead to physiological stress responses in wildlife as well as short- and long-term changes in wildlife behavior, travel patterns, and habitat use, potentially increasing human-wildlife interactions.
Trail grooming with snowmachines, plowing additional miles of the Park Road, and changing access to the Park Road in the shoulder seasons would increase mechanical noise in the park during times of year when natural quiet predominate
Allowing commercial use in wilderness for non-motorized recreation could impact wilderness character and affect opportunities for primitive and unconfined recreation, and a small seasonal bridge near Mountain Vista would be an installation in wilderness. Although none of the other components of the proposed action take place within designated wilderness, these actions could change what is visible from wilderness areas (e.g., motorized vehicles on the Park Road, additional signs and kiosks, improved mushing access near the Mountain Vista rest area), introduce additional human-generated sounds to the natural soundscape, and introduce additional human activities in the vicinity.
he proposed action centers on changes to visitor opportunities that would affect visitor use patterns and the visitor experience. These changes include increased opportunities for motorized access to the Park Road and an associated decrease in non-motorized access on some segments of the Park Road, increased campground opportunities, additional opportunities for guiding in wilderness, and the installation of a variety of signs and kiosks intended to inform and educate visitors. These actions may alter the visitor experience of the winter and shoulder seasons.
 

 

Alternatives

The EA describes a no action alternative, the NPS preferred alternative, and two other action alternatives. Each of these are summarized in the table below:

list of details for various options in the winter ea
ActionAlternative 1Alternative 2 (Preferred)Alternative 3Alternative 4
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Impact Analysis

The EA analyzes impacts to wildlife, soundscapes, wilderness, and the visitor experience from each of the alternatives. These impacts are summarized in the table below.
 

Impacts of various alternatives on park priorities like wildlife
IssueAlternative 1Alternative 2 (Preferred)Alternative 3Alternative 4
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EA Appendices

In addition to the alternatives and impacts explored in the environmental assessment itself, the document contains a number of appendices that address related issues and provide additional information that is useful for understanding the EA.
The 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) requires the NPS to analyze the impact of any proposed action on subsistence resources and opportunities. The Section 810 Analysis for this EA concludes that the proposed action and considered alternatives will not restrict subsistence uses.
The Wilderness Act prohibits commercial services in wilderness except to the extent necessary for realizing the recreational or other purposes of the wilderness area. This extent necessary determination analyzes whether commercial services for non-motorized winter recreation (skiing, snowshoeing, and dogsledding) are necessary in wilderness areas in Denali and to what extent. The extent necessary determination concludes that commercial services for these activities are necessary in some areas of the Denali wilderness, and describes the levels of commercial use that are acceptable.
Desired conditions are aspirational statements that describe the resource and visitor experience conditions that the park would like to see in the park. Desired conditions are a target that the park aims for, and they do not describe how that target will be reached. These desired conditions were first described in the 2019 Winter and Shoulder Season Plan. They do not replace any previously-established desired conditions, but add seasonally-specific detail to desired conditions established in other park planning documents, such as the Resource Stewardship Strategy and Backcountry Management Plan.
The glossary to the EA defines some of the terms used throughout the document.

 

Last updated: July 1, 2020

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