Building in an Ashen Land: Historic Resource Study
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TODAY, BRISTOL BAY is widely known as having the world's most plentiful stocks of wild sockeye (red) salmon, and the Naknek River system that flows out of Katmai National Park has long been known as one of the primary contributors to the bay's salmon stocks. The many streams that flow eastward from the park into Shelikof Strait, and the upper reaches of the Alagnak River drainage system, also boast healthy salmon populations, though not to the extent of the Naknek River system. Commercial fisheries interests, not surprisingly, were quick to respond to the area's abundant salmon populations, and in order to preserve the salmon's long-term abundance, government scientists and regulators have had a long-term management presence in the Naknek drainage. These activities are manifested in the Lake Brooks Field Laboratory, the Brooks River fish ladder, and other cabins and structures that have been related to fisheries research and management.

Initial Management Activities

As noted in the Chapter 7, the first area canneries were located on Kodiak Island (east of the present-day park) and along the Nushagak River (northwest of the park) during the early 1880s. By the mid-1880s, the remarkable Bristol Bay salmon resource was becoming widely recognized, and in the 1890s salteries and canneries were located along the Naknek River, just west of the present park boundaries.

Shortly after World War I, fisheries managers began to enter the Katmai area. The U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, a predecessor agency to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, decided to undertake a predatory fish destruction program in the various major Bristol Bay tributaries. The agency undertook such a program because salmon, at that time, was the only fish desired by local canneries. Therefore, any species that preyed on salmon was considered undesirable, and trout were specifically identified for destruction. As part of that survey, the Bureau sponsored a broad survey of fish populations; the agency studied the Naknek River system as well as other major Bristol Bay drainages. In early June of 1920, a four-man party headed by A. T. Looff of the College of Fisheries, University of Washington, began its Naknek Lake investigations.

Salmon ascending Brooks Falls. Photograph by Steve Buskirk. NPS Photo Collection, slide 4970-2-5750.

Looff and his crew quickly surveyed the margins of the lake and found that "practically all the fish entering [upstream into] Naknek Lake either pass up Kidawik Creek [Brooks River] or Simenoffsky [Savonoski] River." [1] Kidawik Creek, in particular, was judged to be "an ideal salmon stream with fine spawning bottom ... where good numbers of lake trout and some Dolly Vardens were taken." The party camped at the creek mouth, then ascended to "a waterfall from 5 to 8 feet high, over which it would be impossible for fish to ascend during low-water stage." In an attempt to improve its spawning possibilities, the crew proceeded to modify the north side of the falls. By using "several stone-cutting gads, a steel bar, top maul, hammer and pick," they made a cut "10 feet in width, sloping back about 15 feet, through which the fish could easily pass." The following year, a better-equipped crew returned to the site and used dynamite to widen the slot. [2] Brooks River, at this time, was not part of Katmai National Monument.

Fisheries crews returned to Naknek Lake and the Brooks River each year from 1920 through 1925; in 1924 and 1925, they also included Lake Coville and Lake Grosvenor in their investigation. During that time, they killed more than 13,000 sport fish, primarily rainbow trout, lake trout, and Dolly Varden. The Bureau of Fisheries ignored Naknek Lake for the next decade. Below the lake, however, the Bureau remained active. In 1928, it established a fisheries station five miles upriver from Naknek, and maintained a salmon-counting weir at the site until 1932. [3]

In 1936, biologists showed renewed interest in the Lake Brooks area, which had been added to Katmai National Monument five years earlier. They noticed that Brooks Falls was not a block to red salmon under normal conditions. During seasons of low water, however, they observed that many died unspawned below the falls, presumably because of injury caused in attempting to negotiate them. Based on that overview, they made plans for "blasting steps in the falls" in the spring of 1937. Those plans, however, were put on hold for the time being. [4]

In 1938, concern about Japanese offshore fishing in the Bristol Bay area brought about a renewal of interest in Katmai's fisheries resource. Congress directed an investigation of the salmon fisheries of Bristol Bay. The plan, conceived in 1938, was to have one team of investigators in the bay tagging and marking fish, while land-based teams would set up operations along the five major bay drainages. The following year the Naknek River received a three-man team, which made a survey of the river system's major spawning grounds. [5] In 1940, the Bureau of Fisheries decided to concentrate their Naknek basin research efforts along the mile-long Brooks River. Fisheries personnel were well aware of the stream's abundant fish runs and felt that the stream was representative of others draining into Bristol Bay. [6]

Construction of Management Facilities

Lake Brooks Field Laboratory
Above: The Lake Brooks Field Laboratory is long associated with the federal fisheries investigations and research of the Bristol Bay watersheds as well as the Lake Brooks area. Looking at the south elevation in this 1957 photograph taken by Ranger Warren Steenburgh. NPS-AKSO List of Classified Structures KATM file.

Because of the agency's decision to concentrate on the Brooks River fish runs, the first government building was constructed in what is now Katmai National Park and Preserve. As has been described in more detail below, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in 1941, began building a field laboratory at the eastern end of Lake Brooks. (That same year, F&WS personnel also built and began operating a second station just below the Naknek River rapids, a few miles southwest of Lake Camp.) Construction on the center section of the log Lake Brooks field laboratory was completed by the close of the 1943 field season. In addition, the agency constructed a salmon-counting weir and a rough road connecting Brooks and Naknek lakes. Based on those improvements, the agency carried on a successful fish research and management program, one that was to last at that location for more than thirty years.

Fisheries research in the Naknek drainage continued during World War II. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel at the Brooks River weir counted escapements into Lake Brooks of 97,496 sockeye salmon in 1940, 125,948 in 1941, 360,899 in 1942, 272,929 in 1944, and 184,319 in 1945. [7] Construction of a wooden weir each year allowed fisheries personnel to make an exact fish count; the weir was set up and removed each season.

At war's end, F&WS biologists began tagging studies on Brooks River and aerial spawning ground surveys on the entire Bristol Bay watershed. "Index areas" were identified on each of the main river systems and photographed each year. Researchers then counted fish in the photographs and, as before, developed annual statistics. [8] Throughout this period, the National Park Service had only the vaguest idea of what Fish and Wildlife Service personnel were doing along the Brooks River and elsewhere in the monument.

Lake Brooks Field Laboratory
Current appearance of the Laboratory as it faces the lake. 1998 photograph taken by Janet Clemens. NPS-LAKA Studies Center.

No sooner had the F&WS become involved in managing the Naknek River drainage's fish runs than they also became active managers of the salmon resources along the monument's eastern shoreline. The U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, the F&WS's predecessor agency, had established a Kodiak office in 1924, and ever since, the agency had made intermittent studies of the salmon spawning areas along the monument's eastern shore. In 1941, the Alaska Game Commission agent at Kodiak noted that the Bureau of Fisheries (which had become part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service the year before) had two watchman's cabins on the south side of Kaflia Bay. Why they were located there is uncertain; because there were no fish traps in the area, the cabins were probably associated with a salmon research study. [9] As noted above, salmon (and clams) had been processed at nearby Kukak Bay from 1924 to 1932 and from 1935 to 1936; thus agency management activities were probably related to that commerce. [10]

The Fish and Wildlife Service made no overt moves to manage the fishery along the monument's eastern shoreline for the remainder of the 1940s. The agency, instead, focused its management activities at its Lake Brooks field laboratory and at other sites within the salmon-rich Naknek River drainage. Recognizing the value of the Brooks River salmon run, agency personnel made repeated attempts to construct a fish ladder to circumvent eight-foot-high Brooks Falls. As noted above, the Bureau of Fisheries had initially proposed a fish ladder in 1937, and in the early 1940s new plans emerged for the project. But the latter attempt was foiled due to a reduction in personnel caused by the onset of World War II. [11]

In 1947, engineers and biologists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Montlake Laboratory at Seattle unveiled a new proposal for a Brooks River fish ladder. Unencumbered by financial or personnel difficulties, the agency's proposal was quickly put into action. The following year, a four-man crew arrived at the site and began constructing a ladder on the south side of the falls; the ladder had seven pools, each one foot above the other. Construction took more than two years, and the ladder opened on August 7, 1950. Willie Nancarrow, who was serving as Katmai's NPS ranger that summer, reported that "in the next week a marked increase in the number of fish going through the weir could be seen." [12] Some NPS officials were chagrined that the F&WS had built the facility without the NPS's permission; Regional Director Owen Tomlinson, for example, protested that "this structure hardly complies with Park Service principles relating to the preservation of natural structures." [13] But the F&WS insisted upon the right to continue using the structure. The fish ladder remained in operation for more than twenty years.

For the remainder of the 1950s, the agency vacillated from year to year in the interest it showed toward Bristol Bay research efforts. Funding during some years allowed tagging programs, foot and photograph surveys, and similar research efforts. But during other years, the F&WS decided to focus its Alaskan research efforts away from Bristol Bay. The Brooks River weir counts continued, but most other western Alaskan investigations were placed on hold. Regardless of funding levels, the agency continued to staff the Lake Brooks field laboratory and maintain the adjacent weir. [14]

The first scientific look at the sport fishing potential of and assessment of sport fishing pressures in the area came in 1954. At the request of the NPS, John Greenbank of the F&WS did a sport fish survey of Katmai National Monument. Greenbank and assistant Ronald Lopp worked through the summer of 1954 and described monument waters, examined fish distribution and abundance, sampled fish populations, and conducted creel censuses in various locations. Overall, the survey found fish populations high and fishing pressure light. Most fishing within the monument occurred in Brooks River. [15] In retrospect, the work was particularly significant because neither the NPS nor the F&WS conducted significant research into Katmai's sport fish populations in the two decades following Greenbank's survey work.

Diversification of Fisheries Research

In 1960, commercial fisheries research in the monument underwent a major change when the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries decided to expand its fisheries research from Brooks River to the entire Naknek drainage system. The Lake Brooks field laboratory became a coordinating center, and to provide for its expansion, new housing was needed. Just south of the field laboratory, the BCF constructed two 28' x 36' four-room log cottages along with a 12' x 20' log garage. [16]

By 1962, studies were being conducted at remote sites within the monument, and to support those studies, the agency built several remote cabins in the monument. By 1965, the agency had built one at the east end of Lake Coville, just west of NCA's Grosvenor Camp, and it had occupied another cabin located two miles above the mouth of American Creek. [17] A third BCF cabin, located at the southeastern end of Lake Grosvenor, was built in the late 1960s. In 1969, it was described as a plywood one-room tent frame type cabin with two adjacent storage sheds which was being used for anadromous fish research. All three temporary camps were still active in 1971. The BCF, during the 1960s and early 70s, also had fish weirs and counting fences on Hardscrabble Creek and at the outlet of lower Kaflia Bay. Therefore, the agency probably erected rude shelters of some sort at those locations. By 1971, each of these shelters had probably been abandoned. [18] Meanwhile, the salmon counting activities along the Brooks River were discontinued after the 1967 season, and the fish weir was removed for the last time; those activities had been the mainstay of the BCF's work for more than 25 years. [19]

A continuing sore point that marred relations between the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service throughout the 1950s and 1960s was the Brooks River fish ladder. Throughout the 1950s, for example, the NPS wanted to get rid of it, while the F&WS defended it. [20] In the mid-1960s, the NPS formalized its principles of aquatic management, which led to an immediate push to do something about the Brooks River fish ladder. The F&WS fought the prospect. [21] Park Service field personnel, however, continued to raise the issue, noting in 1970 that when the ladder was open it greatly reduced the number of salmon that could be seen trying to leap the falls. [22] In 1973, they blocked the ladder's upstream exit with wood planks. It remained blocked for years afterward. But some water now passes through the ladder, and intermittent fish passage occurs.

In 1970, the Fish and Wildlife Service split into two parts: the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). The work at Katmai, which had been administered by the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries, was transferred to NMFS. The new agency continued the work of the old. In 1973, NMFS conducted the second year of a Naknek Lake salmon incubator project and also conducted limnological and biological sampling of the lake system. The following winter, however, the incubators froze and the project was abandoned. NMFS did not staff the Lake Brooks field laboratory in 1974 or thereafter. [23]

To a large extent, NMFS ignored the monument during the mid-1970s. In 1976, the agency began allowing NPS personnel to use the Lake Brooks cabins. The following spring, it decided to transfer its facilities to the Park Service. In 1979 the NPS, under the direction of interim superintendent Roy Sanborn, rehabilitated the two Lake Brooks cottages, and the Lake Brooks field laboratory—then known as the Lake Brooks National Marine Fisheries Research Station—was converted into a residence. That summer, and each summer since, NPS personnel have used the buildings. [24]

The various remote NMFS structures have not fared as well. The primitive cabin at the east end of Lake Coville remained active as part of a salmon fisheries research project until 1972. By the following year, however, it was "not fit for habitation without minimal repairs" and was abandoned. In 1985, NPS rangers lived in the cabin, which by then was dilapidated. The cabin was torn down the following year. Along American Creek, the former BCF cabin remained active from 1963 through 1970 but was afterward abandoned. The cabin at the southeast end of Lake Grosvenor was also used for only a short time. It was abandoned in the early to mid-1970s. [25]

Although most of Fish and Wildlife's facilities in Katmai were established on the Bristol Bay side of the monument, the bureau was also concerned with the Shelikof Strait fishery. Prior to statehood, it claimed jurisdiction of all areas below the mean high tide line. (It also, as noted above, claimed jurisdiction over commercial fish throughout the monument.) It carried out occasional patrols in the strait during the 1950s. In addition, the F&WS made scattered attempts to monitor the fisheries resources on the monument's eastern shore. The agency still maintained its watchman's cabins on Kaflia Bay, and in the summer of 1953 the agency stationed a salmon-stream guard in a tent about one mile south of the Kaguyak Village site. Both improvements may have been erected in conjunction with a nearby fish trap. [26] The agency, during the 1950s, may also have been active on other portions of the coastline.

After statehood, much of the fisheries management along the Shelikof Strait was transferred to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The ADF&G sought a site from which it could manage, survey, and patrol the salmon and clam fisheries along the monument's eastern coastline, and in March 1962 it obtained a ten year Special Use Permit from the NPS for a site on Kashvik Bay, up to three acres in extent, in which to erect one or more field structures. By June, the ADF&G had decided to erect a weir, cabin, and storage shed at the site. Agency personnel used the cabin for the next several years as a base camp for monitoring and patrolling the area. [27]

At Amalik Bay, twenty miles northeast of Kashvik, the state erected a small fueling station in 1962. [28] That may have been the same structure as a 16' x 16' cabin that the ADF&G built during this period in the bay's northwestern cove. Supervisory fish biologist Jack Lechner, then stationed at Chignik, used the cabin to establish a field headquarters for the studying of salmon smolt each spring. Ever since that time, Kodiak-based fisheries agents have used the cabin each March to perform pre-emergent salmon smolt counts. Its continuing utility was reinforced by the decision, in 1985, to replace the cabin's roof, reinforce several walls and to perform other cabin rehabilitation activities. [29]

Since the mid-1970s, both the National Park Service and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game have undertaken a wide range of fisheries management projects within Katmai's boundaries, and additional research into the area's offshore fisheries resources has been undertaken by both the NPS and the Fish and Wildlife Service. Most of those studies, however, required nothing more than temporary tent camps by agency field personnel, and no permanent buildings have been constructed in recent years to support fisheries research or management activities.

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Last Updated: 22-Oct-2002