Land Reborn:
A History of Administration and Visitor Use in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve
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Converging Issues, Diverging Solutions

The major trend in the recent administrative history of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve has been the convergence of several important management issues in such a way that they cannot easily be resolved separately. Some six management issues--wilderness designation, humpback whale protection, cruise-ship concession management, commercial fishing, subsistence, and wilderness access for scientific research--all await redefinition. At the same time, it is not clear who will resolve all these issues--whether it will be by Department regulation, legislation, or litigation. As dissatisfaction with the status quo increases, those who favor greater access to the park are gravitating toward a legislative solution, while the more militant conservation groups are looking for a judicial decision.

The preferred solution from the Park Service's standpoint is to devise new regulations. It is only through the regulatory process that the Park Service can play the lead role in shaping the park's future. It is the Park Service's hope to devise regulations that will not only protect the park's values, but encourage conflicting interest groups to soften their opposition to park policy. The fishing regulations proposed in the summer of 1991 formed one-half of the Park Service's regulatory solution; a Vessel Management Plan, if adopted, will form the other.

The need for a vessel management plan became apparent in the early 1980s, but like the commercial fishing issue it could not be addressed advantageously when the NPS was so involved with protecting the humpback whales. Consequently, vessel entry permit quotas were established indirectly through the whale regulations. As such, they were linked to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the two biological opinions on Glacier Bay's humpback whale population prepared for the NPS by the NMFS in 1979 and 1983. As the numbers of whales in the bay increased in the mid to late 1980s, it became increasingly difficult to justify vessel limits on the basis of whale protection. [1]

In 1988, the Park Service raised the quotas by seven percent on all classes of sightseeing vessels during whale season. Combined with the thirteen percent increase allowed in 1985, this completed the twenty percent increase suggested by the 1983 NMFS biological opinion and raised the levels back up to what they had been in 1979. The new levels set the total number of sightseeing vessel entry permits available from June 1 to August 31 at 1,061. The total for cruise ships in whale season was raised to 107. [2]

While the numbers increased, competition between the major cruise lines decreased. In 1980, there were seven companies competing for entry permits with no company taking more than a twenty-five percent share. A series of corporate mergers reduced that number to four by the end of the decade, with just two lines controlling ninety percent of the entry permits. When the Park Service announced a seven percent increase in cruise ship vessel permits, it raised the question of how the new permits would be allocated. During the early 1980s the Park Service was constrained from introducing more competition by a regional office interpretation of Section 1307(a) of ANILCA, which gave the right of first refusal for all concession contracts and permits in Alaska parks to historical (pre-ANILCA) operators. In 1989, a Department solicitor's opinion rejected this interpretation, prompting NPS director William Penn Mott, Jr. to create a task force on the cruise ship permit system at Glacier Bay National Park. The task force convened at the park in June 1989. [3]

The task force recommended that Glacier Bay cruises be brought under limited concession permits, with sale and transfer of the permits allowed, provided that no fewer than four companies bid for the permits. The NPS would award new or unused permits on a competitive basis, favoring more rather than fewer cruise ship companies. [4] By gradually bringing cruise ship companies under these kinds of controls, the NPS would be able to insist on better smoke stack emission controls, engine noise levels, vessel routing, and other measures to protect the environment. [5]

The Alaska delegation, meanwhile, was chiefly concerned with setting higher quotas for cruise ship and other vessel entries. When Jensen increased the quotas in 1988, Senator Frank Murkowski expressed dissatisfaction that the NPS was not going further. Increasing whale numbers in the bay, Murkowski argued, did not justify the park's continuing reliance on the 1983 biological opinion. Addressing his letter directly to the park superintendent (an unusual and heavy-handed procedure), Murkowski pointedly observed that the "NPS appears to be following its own agenda for limiting use, rather than one based on danger to the whales." [6]

Jensen duly asked the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for a new biological opinion in light of increasing whale numbers in the bay. Since the original biological opinion in 1979, Republican administration of the Endangered Species Act had promoted a trend toward fewer Section 7 consultations, and the NMFS was now reluctant to review its earlier decisions on this issue formally. [7] Instead, the NMFS's Alaska region director, Steven Pennoyer, wrote Jensen a brief letter October 5, 1989, recommending "no change"--that is, endorsing the new quota of 107 cruise ships during whale season and recommending against a further increase. Pennoyer stated: "The NMFS continues to believe that if the amount of vessel traffic were allowed to increase without limit, or if existing regulations were removed, the associated disturbance could jeopardize the continued use of Glacier Bay by the humpback whale stock in Southeast Alaska." [8] On its face, Pennoyer's comments seemed to buttress the park's position. But equally significant was the subtext of Pennoyer's letter: by declining to conduct a new formal Section 7 consultation with staff scientists of the NMFS, Pennoyer was indicating that the responsibility for limiting cruise ship entries now rested with the Park Service. A subsequent effort by NPS regional director Boyd Evison to extract a fresh biological opinion from the NMFS was foiled as well. [9]

Jensen now directed his staff to develop a comprehensive vessel management plan that would address several problems in one planning process. These included vessel entry limits, motorized vessel access to wilderness waters, and speed limits and other vessel restrictions in designated whale waters. [10] NPS planners from the regional office and the park held workshops, with one workshop in April 1991 sponsored by the Southeast Alaska Tourism Council involving seventeen participants, and a follow-up workshop in July drawing fifty. The workbook for the latter event offered six wide-ranging alternatives. The NPS proposed two alternatives that included a limit on cruise ship entries of 184 (the number most often tossed around by tourist industry lobbyists, calculated on the basis of two entries per day during the 92-day whale season from June 1 to August 31), and one with a cruise ship quota as low as 30. The former represented a 72 percent increase over the existing level, the latter an equivalent 72 percent decrease. This was supposed to frame the current level of 107 cruise ships as the moderate alternative. Another purpose of offering such a wide range of alternatives was to shake out all points of view on the issues held by tourist industry representatives, conservationists, fishermen, and other interested parties. [11]

While the NPS developed a Vessel Management Plan, Alaska's Senators Ted Stevens and Frank Murkowski and Representative Don Young repeatedly threatened to push legislation that would mandate higher vessel quotas. These two parallel efforts were not completely separate from one another; the Alaska congressmen were known to make personal calls to the office of NPS director James Ridenour, while Ridenour was summoned to congressional subcommittee hearings from time to time to testify on Glacier Bay. But the process was far from cooperative either. [12]

During 1991-92, the contest intensified, the lawmakers and the bureaucrats each trying to steal a march on the other. In July 1991, Senator Murkowski and Representative Don Young introduced a bill in their respective houses of Congress that would authorize commercial fishing and subsistence use in Glacier Bay National Park and raise the cruise ship vessel entry quota to 184. In September and October, the NPS held a series of hearings in eight Alaskan communities and Seattle on its proposed fishing regulations. The following May, the Glacier Bay bill came before the respective Senate and House subcommittees. Ridenour came under intense pressure to make policy concessions on everything from fishing nets to vessel limits. Clearing the subcommittees by voice votes in June, the bill advanced to committee. [13] The following month, Jensen released a draft Vessel Management Plan. Already nearly six months behind schedule, the plan went out without adequate internal review. Containing many opinions that were not backed by data, the draft proved an embarrassment to senior NPS officials who had been actively opposing the Young and Murkowski bills. [14] However, in early October 1992, the Glacier Bay bill collapsed as negotiations between Murkowski and his Senate opponent Paul Wellstone of Minnesota became deadlocked in the final days before Congress adjourned. [15]

The park staff hardly had time to savor the defeat of the Murkowski bill before it faced a new controversy: on October 6, rangers cited a Native for killing a hair seal in park waters. Greg Brown, a 37-year-old deckhand from Hoonah, was observed heaving a dead seal from a skiff into a seine boat. The rangers seized Brown's rifle and the dead seal and wrote him a citation. He was ordered to appear before a federal magistrate in Juneau where he would face up to a $500 fine. [16]

Word of Brown's arrest sparked strong feelings in Hoonah. Brown claimed that he wanted the seal for a "payback party," a kind of potlatch, that his uncle (the captain of the fishing vessel) was having in honor of his recently deceased son. With that in mind, Brown and another crew member had taken the skiff to Garforth Island where they shot the seal. The Huna Traditional Tribal Council quickly came to Brown's defense, sending a letter and resolution to Senators Stevens and Murkowski and Representative Young. "We are made criminals for our food," the letter charged, protesting that the government was ignoring Hoonah's culture and its historical ties to Glacier Bay. [17]

The incident raised afresh all the old questions about seal hunting: its cultural and economic significance to the Hoonah people, its extent in the park, its biological and aesthetic implications. Even the most basic questions, it seemed, would be open to dispute. According to Brown, one of the rangers who made the arrest commented to him, "Nobody's hunted up there for years," to which Brown replied, "I guess I'm the first to get caught." [18] With Murkowski and Young likely to reintroduce their park legislation the next year, it was unclear which way the seal hunting incident would cut in the Tlingits' bid to regain subsistence rights in the park.

All the controversial initiatives of recent years--fishing regulations, subsistence permits, the Murkowski bill, the Vessel Management Plan, the lawsuit brought by the Alaska Wildlife Alliance--are emblematic of the classic paradox that lies at the heart of the Park Service's mission. This paradox is, of course, the dual directive to provide for the enjoyment of the park by the present generation in such manner as to leave it unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations. How much use can the park sustain without being impaired? How much use is too much?

For decades the question hardly required asking, except in specialized contexts such as with regard to mining in the 1930s or agricultural development around Gustavus in the 1950s. It was not until the late 1970s that total park visitation--or the cumulative environmental impacts caused by cruise ships, pleasure boats, fishing vessels, and backcountry users--reached levels that were problematic. Glacier Bay then joined the ranks of so many other wilderness havens in the United States in being "loved to death." Between the mid-1970s and the early 1980s park visitation doubled; between the early 1980s and the present it doubled again. In gross terms, park visitation has been increasing by 10,000 annually for the past twenty years. In 1992, more than 216,000 people visited Glacier Bay. The Vessel Management Plan would effectively cap this off; the Murkowski bill would allow the upward trend to continue. As long as the proposed legislation has any chance of passage, this basic policy difference has not been definitely resolved.

If the recent managers of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve have dealt with what is essentially the classic dilemma of national park management--of trying to achieve a balance between protection and use--they have also been beset by a set of more specific management dilemmas that are unique to this area, at least in their interplay with one another. Three management dilemmas were salient over the past quarter century or more. Two of these related to the park's Alaskan context, the third to its marine character.

Contention vs. compromise. The fact that the political contest over park visitation and access in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve recently boiled over from the administrative into the legislative and judicial arenas points to the first major dilemma facing park managers: how much should they yield in the incessant disputes between the NPS and the state of Alaska? Alaska's senators and representative extracted enormous concessions from Congress during the D-2 process, and since ANILCA's passage in 1980 the delegation has turned to the administrative arena to win further concessions, involving itself deeply in the management of Alaskan national parks. For park managers, yielding too much risks compromising the integrity of the park and the national park system, while giving too little sometimes results in legislative initiatives that are inimical to existing park purposes.

Alaska is the only state that comprises a whole region of the national park system. It contains fifteen units of the system. National parklands account for a larger percentage of the total land area in Alaska than they do in any other state. Yet Alaska's population is small. As a result, park policies impact Alaskans' lifestyles and jobs and the state government's revenues to a greater extent than they do anywhere else in the nation. Alaska's senators and representative are more sensitive to NPS policies in their state than their fellow congressmen are toward national park management in other states. Alaska's senators and representative sit on all the congressional committees that have oversight of the NPS. They communicate directly with the NPS director, regional director, and superintendent of the park.

Since Alaska statehood, and especially since ANILCA, Alaska's congressional delegation has been an important influence on the administrative history of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. The relationship has not been entirely adversarial--for example, Senator Stevens was instrumental in obtaining large appropriations for research on humpback whales in Glacier Bay in the early 1980s. Overall, however, park managers have operated in a more contentious political environment in Alaska than elsewhere in the United States. This is not likely to change in the near future. If good park management, like politics, is the art of the possible, then park managers must continue to work for greater acceptance of NPS goals by Alaskans and their political representatives if they are to achieve lasting protection of park values.

"Soft" park vs. "hard" park. The second dilemma is as much philosophical as it is political. It stems principally from ANILCA, though its roots may be found in the early history of the monument. It goes to the heart of what the park is about. The issue is whether the NPS is to define the relationship of humankind and nature in Glacier Bay according to traditional NPS standards or according to the somewhat different standards developed in ANILCA. That law made certain distinctions between Alaska's existing, or "old" parks, and the "new" ones created in 1980. Traditionalists in the NPS now refer unofficially to "hard" parks and "soft" parks, in the hope that these categories will remain distinct. To Alaskans, the distinction between the old and new parks in their state is less apparent.

The differences between "hard" parks and "soft" parks go deeper than the labels suggest. They do not merely reflect the difference between standing on principles or capitulating to political expedience. Rather, they reflect two views of wilderness and society, the first a traditionalist view derived from NPS experience outside of Alaska, the second an innovative--some would say localist--view of wilderness and society based on conditions in Alaska. Both ideas of wilderness have influenced management decisions in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in the past. But the convergence of management issues in recent years is creating a need to articulate clearly between the two and to make a choice. With respect to commercial fishing and subsistence use in the park, these two ideas of wilderness have become incompatible.

The traditionalist view of the wilderness park is of a nature preserve in which anthropogenic impacts on the environment are minimized, if not eliminated. The highest goal of park administration in this view is to create a land management zone in which nature runs its course undisturbed by human agency. Traditionalists acknowledge that the goal is unattainable in a pure sense, both because parks are never inviolate from anthropogenic environmental changes outside their boundaries, and because authorized uses of parks for tourism are not without environmental consequences. However, the traditionalist believes that national parks (especially "hard" parks) come close enough to that ideal to possess outstanding scientific and aesthetic values. Indeed, some argue that Alaska's relatively "pristine" ecosystems make them uniquely suitable for the monitoring of global environmental degradation and it is incumbent on the NPS to keep them that way.

The "localist" conception of the Alaskan wilderness park is of a natural and cultural landscape in which the sparse human inhabitants live in dynamic balance with nature. In this view, the wilderness park is part of a larger land management scheme in Alaska established under ANILCA which seeks to preserve a unique American lifestyle as well as the natural environment. Indeed, this view of Alaskan wilderness argues that the human inhabitants are an integral part of nature, and to remove them from the ecological community is to create something artificial. This Alaskan wilderness idea tries to combine an individualist and primitivist frontier ethic with a modern land ethic. The romantic essence of this idea is expressed by the heading in the recent NPS brochure on Alaska's national parklands, which reads: "Our Lasting Frontier." Advocates of a localist kind of wilderness preservation must confront the fact that as long as Alaska's rural population continues to grow, a dynamic balance of humankind and nature will continue to elude us. Still, they argue that the effort to achieve that balance is the most important contribution that Alaskans can make to the environmental health of the world.

These two conceptions of Alaska's wilderness parks lead to different conclusions about the proper future course for Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. From the traditionalist perspective, screening out human consumptive uses of the park should be a management priority. The traditionalist holds that consumptive uses are by definition disturbances of the natural environment. Commercial fishing is altering the biotic composition of the marine ecosystem and needs to be phased out, particularly since Glacier Bay National Park is one of the few protected areas in the world that includes offshore saltwater habitat within its jurisdiction. Subsistence use of the park needs to be resisted, as this, too, would alter the park's biota. The park's designation as a Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site, according to the traditionalist's way of thinking, should reinforce the Park Service's commitment to managing the park along these lines.

The localist view of the wilderness park characterizes commercial fishing in Glacier Bay as small-scale, traditional, and a feature of the Alaskan wilderness lifestyle that ANILCA was designed to preserve. Rather than phase it out, they would like to see the NPS participate with other agencies and local citizens groups in ensuring that the fishery remains small. They do not want commercial fishing in the park to cause any resource depletion, but they maintain that harvest levels can conceivably remain low enough to have no significant effect. Subsistence use is central to the localist concept of Alaskan wilderness, and advocates view its absence in Glacier Bay as an anomaly and an injustice to the people of Hoonah that ought to be corrected.

Interestingly, the traditionalist and localist perspectives are not really at odds over the problem of total park visitation. Neither perspective seems to have any advantages over the other in resolving the problem of limiting use to some reasonable amount that equitably serves both the present and future generations of the American public. In addressing this problem, park managers have been pulled in two directions by a third dilemma, which is less of a philosophical nature than it is a function of evolving methods of wilderness management.

Biological vs. recreational carrying capacity. Over the years park managers have cited numerous reasons for limiting visitor use of Glacier Bay. All of these reasons relate to the protection of park values. But park values are difficult to define and often are contested by the visiting public, with its diverse demographic and socio-economic characteristics. There is, for example, the effect of fishing vessels in Glacier Bay. From an aesthetic standpoint, park managers generally assume that the sight of a fishing vessel elicits a feeling of crowding in the typical park visitor and erodes a key park value of solitude, of freedom from the hubbub of workaday life. Local fishermen mostly feel that they are a part of the wilderness setting and do not detract from the typical visitor's enjoyment. From an ecological standpoint, park managers suspect that the fishing fleet's total take of fish alters the food web in Glacier Bay and impairs one of the park's scientific values. Local fishermen (and many fisheries biologists) challenge this assumption. What this example demonstrates is that impacts on the park are difficult to evaluate and tend to break down into two categories for purposes of analysis, one dependent on visitor tastes and perceptions (or anthropocentric criteria) and the other dependent on human-caused, "anthropogenic" environmental changes (or biocentric criteria). The dilemma for park managers has been in apportioning their limited resources between these two very different approaches to environmental protection.

The effort to protect the humpback whale population by restricting vessel entries, speeds, and movements in designated "whale waters" was an outstanding example of biocentric resource management. Everything in the whale regulations was aimed at minimizing anthropogenic disturbances to the whales' habitat. Legally, the regulations were well-grounded in the Endangered Species Act and the NMFS's biological opinions, as well as the National Parks Act's directive "to conserve...the wild life" in each national park. But there were problems. When this management issue was viewed as a strictly scientific problem of determining how vessel traffic affects whales in Glacier Bay, there were too many variables, too few whales, and too few years for researchers to reach any definite conclusions. As a result, the NPS had to base its vessel restrictions on the somewhat arbitrary index of the numbers of whales that came into the bay each summer. When the numbers of whales increased in the mid- to late 1980s, park managers were obliged to raise vessel entry quotas, too. Belatedly, park managers then had to acknowledge that the vessel restrictions incidentally protected a great many other park values, too.

The NPS survey of Alsek River rafters in 1984, meanwhile, was an outstanding example of anthropocentric wilderness management. Questionnaires were designed to measure "crowding" by quantifying user experiences, expectations, and preferences as to the number of encounters they had with other parties on the river. River users were also asked to rate the significance of a whole range of problems from litter and airplane overflights to insects and a lack of wildlife to photograph. The purpose of the study was to inform park managers about the effects of the current level of use upon the users, rather than upon the environment. The study's premise was that people's perceptions were as valid as biological impacts in providing a basis for limiting use. The study was aimed at establishing the Alsek River's recreational carrying capacity--the amount of use the river could sustain without resulting in degradation of the visitor's enjoyment. Good management could actually increase recreational carrying capacity by spacing users apart from each other, limiting group size, designating camp sites in secluded places, and employing other such strategies.

Anthropocentric wilderness management had problems, too, however. The park visitors being surveyed did not necessarily perceive that their own use of the area was having an impact. By making present-day visitor's perceptions the standard for valuation, this study barely considered that the effects of present-day levels of use might impair those same values for future cohorts of river rafters. If the supposed recreational carrying capacity of the river were to exceed its natural human carrying capacity, then the actual levels of use would result in degradation of the natural environment over the long term. In that event, the supposed recreational carrying capacity would have been misleading because it would not have been sustainable over time. [19] To ensure against this eventuality, the NPS had to monitor human-caused environmental changes around heavily-used campsites and all along the river so as to determine the river's natural human carrying capacity as well as its recreational carrying capacity.

In most natural settings where recreational carrying capacity has been studied by the NPS, research has shown that wilderness users have a higher psychological and social tolerance for the effects of crowding than the natural environment has for human use. The marine configuration of the Glacier Bay wilderness is a rare instance where increasing use might exceed the recreational carrying capacity before it reaches the natural human carrying capacity. The immense volume of run-off into the bay, coupled with enormous tidal variations, tends to flush the system of most pollutants and debris. Cruise ships affect whale behavior and air quality, but their impact on the natural environment is otherwise minimal. Beach camp sites are not particularly vulnerable to trampling, and are cleansed by wave action during storms. At the same time, the sparsely vegetated terrain and areas of open water make all park visitors highly visible and mobile, two factors that readily produce a feeling of crowding. Consequently, park managers have had to give greater weight to anthropocentric considerations in Glacier Bay than they have in most national park areas. The trend appears to be toward more use of social science perspectives in the management of the park.

In coming years, the critical test of biocentric resource management will be to assess what is happening to the park's marine environment. With greater sophistication and breadth than ever before, the NPS will attempt to differentiate between the natural and anthropogenic environmental change occuring in Glacier Bay, between the effects of commercial fishing and the natural course of post-glacial succession. Recent evidence that the sea otter is making a dramatic comeback, while encouraging in its own right, complicates this task. The sea otters' return will likely bring back kelp forests and an array of other environmental changes. Sea otters feed on king crab, one of the species that is commercially fished in Glacier Bay. The sea otter's long absence from the ecosystem and its subsequent return underscores the fact that human interaction with this natural environment has a long history.

The growing emphasis on research in the park suggests that crucial changes are afoot in the administration and use of Glacier Bay. It is likely that the coming years will bring new changes in the basic meaning of the park as profound as were the changes in the 1930s and the 1960s. Beyond monumentalism, habitat protection, and wilderness preservation, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve awaits a new conception.

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Last Updated: 24-Sep-2000