Backcountry use in Glacier Bay National Park has begun to increase rapidly in recent years as public awareness of this unique marine wilderness park has grown. This has placed an increasing demand on park resources to accommodate an expanding array of visitor activities.
Although there are over 2.6 million acres of designated Wilderness in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, the vast majority of backcountry use occurs along the shoreline within the bay proper. The steep topography of much of this coastal zone limits the area available for camping. Use is further concentrated as visitors are mostly attracted to the upper bay to view tidewater glaciers. Administrative closures of certain beaches due to bear concerns or for wildlife protection have added to camper congestion on the remaining suitable beaches. The result has been a management concern that the visitor experience in Glacier Bay as well as the biological integrity of park resources may be compromised if unlimited growth in visitation continues.
Visitor use patterns were verified by the results of a visitor camper survey conducted from 1996-1999 by the Resource Management Division in cooperation with the Ranger and Interpretive Divisions. This survey showed several areas where multiple parties camped on the same beach on the same night. These patterns are likely out of compliance with the park’s Wilderness Visitor Use Management Plan, which describes the following target social condition:
Over the majority of the area, inter-group contacts will be rare (no campsite encounters per night and one or less travel encounters per day for 90% of the visitors).
The survey also documents campsites which, during peak visitor season, are occupied on 40% to 60% of the nights. Again, this may be in violation of conditions in the park’s Wilderness Visitor Use Management Plan which states:
... resource use from visitors will not be apparent. Individual campsites will be used no more than 25% of the time during the June 1 to August 31 summer season. Furthermore. there will be ten or less specific sites used more heavily than could be tolerated and still maintain the above conditions.
In 1998, the park instituted a mandatory permit requirement for camping in the backcountry. The permit system has allowed managers to more accurately assess the actual use occurring and also serves as an emergency contact system for backcountry visitors. Also in 1998, Glacier Bay instituted a cap of 2200 total backcountry visitors allowed in the park’s backcountry for 1998 and again in 1999. The Resource Management Division is conducting the visitor survey this year for the fourth year, to further determine travel patterns and areas of high use. Data collected from this survey will be analyzed in the winter to decide what restrictions, if any, should be placed on kayaker/camper use of Glacier Bay.
Since 1997, the survey has been extended to boaters as well, to try and obtain a fuller picture of boat visitation patterns and assess what resources in the park may require further protection from vessel impacts.