STATEMENT OF MARCIA BLASZAK, REGIONAL DIRECTOR, ALASKA REGION, NATIONAL PARK SERVICE, U. S. DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR, BEFORE THE SUBCOMMITTEE ON CRIMINAL JUSTICE, DRUG POLICY AND HUMAN RESOURCES, OF THE HOUSE GOVERNMENT REFORM COMMITTEE, AT AN OVERSIGHT HEARING CONCERNING “MANAGEMENT OF THE NATIONAL PARKS AND THE PARKS OF THE ALASKA.”
AUGUST 14, 2006
Mr. Chairman, welcome to Alaska and thank you for the opportunity to appear today to discuss several topics -- including access, inholdings, and visitor services -- in the Alaska Region of the National Park Service.
First, on behalf of the National Park Service (NPS), I would like to thank Congress for its continuing support of parks and programs in Alaska, as well as the entire National Park System.
Your travels this month introduced you to Alaska, but our parks are as far flung as the state itself. The Alaska Region is home to 15 units of the National Park System and two affiliated areas. Geographically, these stretch from Sitka National Historical Parkin Southeast Alaska west some 1,200 miles to the Aleutian World War II National Historic Site, and north another 900 miles to the headquarters of the Western Arctic Parklands in Kotzebue. In all, we manage 54 million acres, about two-thirds of the acreage in the National Park System.
Within these areas are 33 million acres of Congressionally designated wilderness. Here, too, are units of international significance: Wrangell-St. Elias and Glacier Bay are World Heritage Sites. Alaska's parks are home to the tallest mountains in North America, the migrations of hundreds of thousands of caribou, and millions of wild salmon. And, significantly, the parks we manage continue to function for many Native and rural Alaskans as areas for subsistence hunting, fishing and trapping.
This year, the Alaska Region will host about 2.3 million recreational visits, more than double the number from 1986. We believe that the principal mandates of the NPS Organic Act -- to protect park units unimpaired for future generations and to provide for the enjoyment of parks by visitors -- are being met.
In FY-2005, the Alaska Region operated with a budget of $89 million, with an additional $10.3 million for construction, $2.4 million for roads, and $1.2 million for land acquisition. At the height of our summer operations, we employ about 1,000 people in more than 20 communities. We also license about 400 private businesses to provide visitor services in national park areas in Alaska. These range from large, multi-national corporations to small, family-operated businesses.
We are nearing completion of our Core Operations Evaluations to ensure we meet the critical needs of each park and office, and to improve our sharing of available financial resources. As we examine our park and regional operations in detail, the process has reinforced not only the financial realities that we face but also has underscored the important issues across the region as well as the significant achievements. I would like to highlight several of these key areas:
Inholdings and Access
The establishment of the majority of Alaska's park units came after five other significant federal land actions. These included the disposal of many relatively small parcels through homesteading, mining claims, and individual Native allotments; the Statehood Act which allowed the state of Alaska to select 103 million acres from the federal domain, and the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which is conveying 44 million acres to Native corporations.
As a result, the park boundaries set in the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act often incorporated significant non-federal acreage. In recognition of this fact, and the realization that large blocks of federal land might have to be crossed to reach non-federal lands, the Lands Act included unique access provisions.
Today, we find more than 1.6 million acres of non-federal land within the National Park System in Alaska. The largest amount, nearly 900,000 acres, is found in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. While my comments will focus on this park, many similar situations exist in other units in Alaska.
Within Wrangell-St. Elias, we find a mix of land ownership and access issues, of which I will highlight two areas in particular. The first is the town of McCarthy, near the center of the park. This year marks its 100th anniversary. Its heyday was in the 1920s and 1930s as the neighbor to Kennecott, then a rich copper mine connected to tidewater by railroad to Cordova. The mine closed in 1938, but the towns hung on, never quite ghost towns, always home to a handful of hearty individuals and families.
Today, the mines are part of the national park and a key visitor destination. The towns are reached by a state-owned road which, along much of its route, is adjoined by state and Ahtna native corporation land. The towns of McCarthy and Kennecott are largely privately owned with an economy that has evolved, in part, to cater to park visitors. The opportunity and challenge we face is to protect the stunning natural and cultural resources of the national park and to provide the necessary access for residents and visitors, while simultaneously ensuring that a century-old community is able to continue to grow and to maintain its unique place in Alaska.
For the past two years, we have worked to change that situation. Public comment ends September 2, 2006 on the second draft of a user's guide to access, which we believe will help guide both park managers and landowners through existing law, regulation and policy. The goal is to document existing access routes, establish terms for their use that accommodate the owner and protect the public land resources, and develop a clear, consistent process for authorizing new uses of park land to reach non-federal lands. We are taking time to meet with homeowners, the state of Alaska, and Native corporations in an effort to ensure that the resulting documentation of access has broad understanding and support.
Visitation Patterns and Partnerships
Visitation to the Alaska parks is highly seasonal, focused on May to September. While we have seen gradual lengthening of the visitor season across Alaska and parks are open all year, we are primarily a summer destination. Over the past 20 years, visitation has increased from just over 1 million to 2.3 million in 2005. Much of this increase has been driven by the increasing popularity of cruise ship travel and add-on land tours in Alaska. That pattern has focused growth on our three southeast parks --Sitka, Glacier Bay and Klondike Gold Rush -- and on road-accessible parks, particularly Denali and Kenai Fjords, and more recently, Wrangell-St. Elias.
The investments made in visitor facilities both respond to this growth and help guide where it occurs. In the first instance, some $34 million in facilities opened at Denali in the past three years provide visitors, for the first time, a high-quality entrance area campus at which to both orient themselves to the park and to learn about opportunities to experience Denali in ways other than the traditional bus ride. In Wrangell-St. Elias, investment in a new visitor center along the Richardson Highway, state investments on the McCarthy Road, and NPS and private investments in Kennecott and McCarthy are keys to the park and its gateway communities being sustainable visitor destinations.
For the past two years, the National Park Service has benefited from a partnership with the Alaska Travel Industry Association made possible by a $750,000 statutory aid grant supported by the Alaska congressional delegation. This funding has made possible the marketing of lesser-known Alaska parks through a mix of direct mail, magazine advertising, industry and media familiarization trips, press kits, and industry meeting participation.
Relationships with the State of Alaska
The state of Alaska is an important partner for the National Park Service in our management of resources and our working relationship has improved over the past several years. While we have sometimes disagreed over the specific application of certain laws and regulations, overall, we have far more areas of agreement. We are committed to continuing to work cooperatively with the State to ensure that difficult issues regarding access, subsistence, and resource management are resolved successfully.
An example of our responsiveness to State concerns is our new process for public review of Superintendent’s Compendiums. Beginning in 2001, we began working with the state to rework our Superintendent's Compendiums, the annual documents that implement park-specific openings and closures based on regulations. The state objected to the use of compendiums for restrictions that were more appropriate as new regulations. We followed through with agreed-upon regulatory changes, and retooled the compendium process to include annual public review. A second package of proposed regulations is under review by the Department of the Interior.
In the face of many challenges but also recognizing our many common goals, the day-to-day working relationships between Park Service and State of Alaska employees at the field level continue to be excellent. This plays out not only in park resource issues, but in law enforcement and search and rescue missions through memoranda of understanding with the state's Department of Public Safety.
The Alaska Region of the NPS has recently completed a broad review of science issues, constraints and opportunities that affect park and regional programs. Key findings and recommendations are contained in our science strategy released in July 2006. Notable among recognized environmental stressors were climate change, increasing human use, development within and surrounding parks, global and local contaminants and exotic species. Although glacier retreat and other indicators of climate change are hardly new phenomena in Alaska, they are harbingers of future challenges for resource managers, particularly in such areas as wildlife, fisheries, subsistence, vegetation and fire management.
The additional funding provided by Congress for the Natural Resource Challenge has had a positive effect here, allowing us to establish inventory and monitoring networks and begin building additional scientific capacity. The more we know about the areas we manage, the better position we are in to make the complex, science-based decisions that effective resource management requires. We are using this information to address complex resource management questions in Alaska national park units.
Major Construction Completed and Under Way
The Alaska Region has benefited from significant capital investments supported by Congress over the last several years. We have been able to build and restore several buildings to help serve the public. Examples in addition to the previously mentioned work at Denali include:
Several large construction projects are anticipated in the years to come for the NPS in Alaska. Topping our construction priority list are projects at Denali and Katmai. The Denali projects include sewage treatment facilities for the frontcountry of the park, an emergency vehicle and ambulance garage, and visitor service improvements near Savage River. At Katmai, we have maintenance facilities proposed for construction.
Also, we have completed land acquisition and initial designs for the $17.5 million Mary Lowell Center in Seward. As directed in Congressional appropriations, the center will serve as the new visitor center and headquarters for Kenai Fjords National Park, and will house U.S. Forest Service personnel and a city-operated meeting facility.
On June 30, 2006, we signed a record of decision advancing a series of phased developments on the south side of Denali National Park. The $46 million project will require joint funding by the National Park Service, the state of Alaska, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and others. The plan includes a visitor center, trails, campground and other facilities. The visitor center would provide a commanding view of Mount McKinley and the Alaska Range, as well as direct access to Denali State Park. Smaller facilities west of the George Parks Highway will provide a jumping off point for visitors to the national park. The project has the endorsement of the visitor industry in Alaska, and has been developed with the input of hundreds of area residents to meet local and statewide concerns.
The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 established, designated or expanded park units to provide the opportunity for rural residents to engage in subsistence uses. The National Park Service has responsibility for conserving natural and healthy populations of fish and wildlife and monitoring the taking of consumptive resources on 45 million acres of parkland and more than 18,000 miles of rivers and streams. Our management challenges grew more complex in 1989, as the State of Alaska lost its ability to implement portions of ANILCA, and even more complex in 1999, when the federal program expanded to include fisheries management. The $1.5 million program includes developing management plans, policies and regulations for subsistence seasons and harvest limits, eligibility criteria, and working closely with local advisory groups.
Thank you for the opportunity to be here today. I would be happy to respond to any questions you or other members of the subcommittee may have.