Preserving the Denali Park Road: Ninety Years of Challenge and Perserverance
This presentation is part of the A Century of Design in the Parks: Preserving the Built Environment in National and State Parks, June 21-23, 2016, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Frank Norris: A guy who’s living in Santa Fe is going to be babbling on about Alaska for the next few minutes. I wrote an administrative history of it just before I came down here eight years ago. For those of you who have not been to Alaska or more specifically to Denali, the first few slides may be of help to you then we’ll get into the nitty gritty of the paper itself.
Denali National Park and Preserve is one of the largest units in the system. The entire unit covers about 6.1 million acres, 4.7 million acres in national park lands and over at the west end you have some national preserve, where sport hunting is allowed. Denali is Alaska’s oldest national park and it’s a major tourist draw. Access to the park, and this is where we’ll really focus on in the next few minutes, is almost entirely dependent on a single ninety mile ribbon of road which is still mostly gravel. That road, designed by the park service during the early 1920s initially provided park access to a few hundred, maybe a thousand annual visitors. However, more than five hundred times that number typically use the road each year these days. Given that explosion in visitation, the park road and its design have often been the center of a debate about the delicate balance between visitor access and resource protection.
These days Denali attracts perhaps 560,000 recreational visitors a year. A few of these visitors typically head out into the parks back country on hiking and back country trips. More than a thousand each year try to climb Denali or perhaps other Alaska Range peaks. A few sport hunters head to Denali national preserve and some local residents hop on a snow machine or dog sled for subsistence hunting in either the park or the preserve. The vast majority however, arrive at the parks eastern entrance via either the Alaska railroad or the parks highway. They then board either a tour bus or a shuttle bus and head down the park road with two basic goals in mind. Either they want to see the parks five best known wildlife species – that would be mountain sheep, caribou, grizzly bear, moose and wolf – and second they’re looking for great views of Denali (by the way, last year it was officially changed from Mount McKinley to Denali. Mr. Obama had something to do with that) along with the surrounding wilderness landscape.
Less than a century ago however, no tourists visited this vast area. When President Wilson signed Mount McKinley National Park into law in February 1917 the remarkable wildlife populations were there, that was the reason that congress created the park, and the great mountain wilderness was there too, but the railroad didn’t arrive until the fall of 1921 and a highway didn’t connect to the park until much, much, later. Park service officials hoping to develop the park, therefore, proceeded from an essentially blank slate.
The first employee at the park was superintendent Henry Karstens, Harry Karstens who arrived at the east end of the park just before the railroad arrived. Karstens soon told his superiors in Washington that an all-weather road heading west from the railroad into the park was one of the park’s top priorities. The Alaska Road Commission, which was the territory’s designated road building agency, had already marked off a winter sled road over an approximate route in that area to the Kantishna mining camp which was ninety miles west of the park railroad right-of-way. ARC engineers responded by recommending a direct and cheaply built road between the railroad in Kantishna along the park’s northern boundary, but that route would’ve offered only scattered views of those magnificent Alaska Range peaks. Karstens, however, envisioned a road that would bisect the park and terminate at Peters Glacier, at the end of that little blue arrow there, near the base of Mount McKinley where he hoped that a lodge might be built. In a letter to his superiors in Washington, Karstens called his proposed right-of-way “a natural and interesting route for a purely park road.” Washington officials, by this time, had stated that they would be willing to share in the construction cost if the ARC would supply men and equipment for the job.
So working together, two agency heads, General James Steese of the Alaska Road Commission and Steven Mather of the park service worked together and arrived at a pragmatic compromise. The ARC chief agreed with Karstens division to build a scenic road right through the center of the park in order to maximize views of both wildlife and the majestic Alaska Range. While the NPS chief agreed to move the west end of the park road, not to Peters Glacier but north to Kantishna. The road therefore would serve miners as well as tourists. Under the join plan, ARC surveyors laid out the park road in 1922 and construction began a year later.
During the early 20s the park service had definite ideas about how roads should be built in the various national parks, and maybe all of you already know this, but acting director Arno Cammerer explained the agencies road building philosophy in a letter to ARC engineers hoping that he might influence the commission’s construction crews out in the field. Cammer wrote that traveling on a park road should quote, “allow the visitor the best possible views and vistas of the country, avoiding a straight line in road location. We believe that the easy curved roadways are particularly charming and pleasing in national park work. We also ask that care be taken in clearing for the roadbed. It is often possible by switching the line of a road a few feet to preserve the particularly interesting bits of shrubbery, a spring, or rock formations,” unquote.
Under park service guidance, ARC crews built an all-weather gravel road west from the Alaska Railroad into the park. Funds to build the road were perpetually tight. They seldom exceeded $100,000 per year. So the road was built in a series of small steps, a few miles each year. At that rate the road did not reach Kantishna until 1938, fifteen years later. The resulting road was twenty feet wide for the first fifty-three miles, and that first fifty-three miles goes from the railroad to the Toklat River Bridge, and just sixteen feet wide out on the west end from the Toklat River out to Kantishna.
Alaska territory during this period hosted fewer than thirty thousand outside tourists each summer and Mount McKinley National Park, which was located 150 miles away from the nearest steamship port, was a secondary destination. So park service, park visitation, throughout the 20s and 30s never exceeded fifteen hundred people per year. The road’s only traffic during this period consisted of occasional concessioner run tour buses, NPS patrol vehicles, and a smattering of mining trucks. And of course all those vehicles had to be brought to the park headquarters area by the Alaska Railroad.
Things began to change in 1939 when the federal government opened the McKinley Park Hotel near the railroad station. In April 1943 the US army took over the hotel as a rest and recreation site, and for the next two years about five hundred soldiers a month visited the park. Once the war was over, civilian tourists returned to the park and during the late 40s and early 50s, the park received up to eight thousand visitors a year. What really stimulated visitation however was the Alaska Roads Commission decision to construct a 150-mile-long-highway that would tie the park road to the territories contiguous road network. That’s a highway map I got from my dad which showed the Denali Highway under construction. I think that map is from about ‘56. That road, called the Denali Highway, was completed in August of ‘57 and sure enough, visitation dramatically increased. In both ‘58 and ‘59, more than twenty-five hundred tourists entered Mount McKinley National Park, many of whom arrived in their station wagons and stayed over either at the hotel or at one of the park campgrounds. The era of rubber-tired tourism had arrived.
Throughout the post war period the park road continued to be the same ribbon of gravel the road commission had completed in 1938, but by the mid-1950s NPS officials in anticipation of the Denali Highway, recognized the need for road improvements and a park planning report stated the at the route had become quote, “a substandard gravel road of a type that is not desirable as the main park road.” The park’s Mission 66 program, which was approved in 1957, called for the park road to be realigned, widened, and paved. Along with the addition of guardrails and other safety features.
Base on those plans the park service authorized the Bureau of Public Roads, which was the successor to the Alaska Road Commission, to widen the road from twenty feet to twenty-six feet. Not everyone, however, welcomed these developments. As early as the fall of 1956, park biologist Adolf Murie openly questioned the need for road improvements and other developments. In an impassioned letter to the park superintendent he cited the purity of wilderness atmosphere in the park and he noted that quote “the wilderness standards in McKinley must be maintained on a higher level than anything we have attempted in the states.”
As one key element in the park’s Mission 66 planning, park architects designed and constructed the Eielson Visitor Center at Mile 66. It’s the location that on clear days offers really dramatic views of Mount McKinley, but when conservationists saw this center in its early construction phase, they were horrified. They argued that the building did not blend into the tundra landscape and they derided it as a “monstrosity” and a “Dairy Queen.” But the park service officials ignored those protests and the visitors center was completed as scheduled in July of 1961.
Meanwhile the Bureau of Public Roads began its widening and improvement program. Construction began in ‘58 near the park hotel and was extended a few miles west each year. By 1962 crews had widened and improved the park road out to Mile 26. That construction work, not surprisingly, proved controversial. In the fall of 1959, Adolf’s brother Olaus Murie warned that, quote “the national park will not serve its purpose if we encourage the visitor to hurry as fast as possible for a mere glimpse of scenery from a car and a few snapshots,” unquote. But the agency’s regional director, Lawrence Merriam, down in San Francisco, “concluded that the road must be widened to minimum safety standards” as far as Eielson Visitor Center, and in Washington, assistant director A. Clark Stratton agreed with Merriam. In a 1962 letter he stated that, quote “we have been forced by increased use to improve the substandard existing park road to make it safe for today’s travel needs.”
The Muries and their fellow conservationists were not pleased by the park service’s response so in the spring of 1963, National Parks Magazine published an entire issue devoted to Mount McKinley. In several short articles, writers criticized the new “speedway” that encouraged visitors to “get in and get out fast” and they further stated that the agency was violating the park’s planning guidelines, which called on visitors to, quote, “savor their park and get full enjoyment and inspiration,” unquote. These messages apparently made an impression because assistant director Stratton in June of ‘63 reversed his recommendations from a year earlier. He wrote to director Conrad Wirth and suggested that the agency adopt telescoping standards for the road. That means 26 miles of a 20 foot roadway with 3 foot shoulders the next 40 miles of a 20 foot roadway with minimum shoulders that could be anywhere from nothing to 3 feet wide and the final 24 miles with no new improvements.
Director Wirth however, ignored Stratton’s letter. In ‘64 and again in ‘65 the agency tendered contracts to a Fairbanks construction outfit to improve and widen, five additional miles of road from Mile 26 out to the Teklanika River Bridge. This work would be carried out in the spring and summer of ‘66. Meanwhile the Bureau of Public Roads was pressuring the park service to take on even more construction. The bureau stated that the next twelve miles of road from the Teklanika River Bridge out to the Toklat River’s east fork was currently, quote “unsafe for general public use,” unquote. So it recommend a 1.2 million construction job, million dollar construction job and park service officials agreed with that assessment.
Conservationists, however, refused to give up. Adolf Murie by this time had just retired from federal service, so in the July 1965 issue of National Parks Magi zine he wrote a rather pointed article about the controversy. Given his 20 plus years of experience at the park, Murie felt that most visitors liked the “charm” of the old road and he also noted that many observers, including a few highway officials, felt that overzealous engineering standards had been applied to the recent widening job. Murie urged the magazine’s readers to register their protests with park service officials. Otherwise, he warned, road building advocates would push to widen the road all the way out to Kantishna.
Murie’s article hit home. Conservationists reacted by sending in protest letters and in response park service officials at both the regional and Washington levels began to back pedal away from their previous positions. By the end of September of ‘65 a new policy had emerged. In a long letter to conservationists, assistant NPS director Johannes Jensen ardently defended the park service’s past actions. He stated that it had long been the agency’s goal to provide access, quote “with as little impact on the natural scene as possible” unquote, and that “conditions of permafrost” had demanded improvements to portions of the old right-of-way. For the future, however, the agencies actions would more closely adhere to Clark Stratton’s 1963 call to have telescoping standards for the road. Jensen stated that, quote “it is our intention to use progressively lower standards the farther the road penetrates into the wilderness. Beyond [the Techlanica River Bridge] the remainder of the road is to receive only minor repairs.” unquote.
Conservationists had clearly won a victory. It remained to be seen however if it would last because a new threat was on the horizon. Soon after Alaska gained statehood in 1959, state officials announced that they planned to build a new direct highway between Anchorage and Fairbanks. That’s the north south road on that map over to the left. That route, called the Parks Highway, would go through the east end of the park. Upon hearing of the new road, conservationists worried that the anticipated spike in highway traffic would dramatically increase park visitation and that in turn would result in new pressures for improvements to the park road. NPS officials, in response, told conservationists that they would delay any new park road widening projects until the Parks Highway was completed. True to their word, no more improvements took place until October 1971 when the Anchorage Fairbanks Highway opened to traffic. Throughout the late 60s and early 70s, no one in the park service made any public announcements about how it would handle the huge increase in park visitors.
But in January of 1972, National Park Service Director George Hartzog surprised nearly everyone in an interview that was published in the magazine US News and World Report. The park road he stated, would not be improved to accommodate auto traffic; instead, the agency planned to manage the new wave of visitors by closing most of the road to private vehicles and by instituting a free shuttle bus system, similar to one that had recently been implemented at Yosemite that would take visitors from the eastern entrance to various points along the park road. After hearing Hartzog’s announcement, some Alaskan’s lashed out against the proposal because after all for the past fifteen years, they’d enjoyed unlimited access to the park road and wanted to keep it that way. Many other however recognized that without major changes, increasing traffic would overwhelm the park road and impact the park’s wildlife populations, which after all was the reason for creating the park in the first place. The new system was implemented on June 1, 1972 and the various agency operated shuttle buses along with the concessioner’s tour buses became the primary ways that visitors saw the wonders of Mount McKinley National Park.
Eight years after the implementation of the park’s shuttle bus system, Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act that caused Mount McKinley National Park to triple in size and it also changed its name to Denali National Park and Preserve. That action, however, did not impact how visitors accessed the park. Today, NPS officials operate essentially the same bus dependent system that they started in ‘72, the agency recognizes now more than ever that providing public access to the park via the road corridor is a continuing challenge but compared with any alternatives, today’s access system appears to provide a healthy balance between visitor access and ecological integrity.
The park road moreover is an enduring survivor from an earlier age. Viewed by some as quaint or rustic, the road’s design features, plus the agencies reliance on bus transportation, ensure that today’s visitors see the park’s wildlife and wilderness scenery at a moderate easygoing pace. The appearance of today’s road however belies a controversial series of events. Today’s lightly traveled direct dirt road is the direct result of first, a small spirited group of conservationists that protested the agencies road improvement plans during the 50s and 60s and second a foresighted NPS director who recognized that too much traffic on that road would jeopardize the wildlife and wilderness values for which the park had been established. Thank you.
Frank Norris joined the National Park Service (as a Volunteer in Parks) in 1981 and has since worked for the agency in Montana, New Mexico, and various parts of Alaska. From 1990 to 2007, he served as a historian in the Alaska Regional Office in Anchorage, where he wrote various historic resource studies and administrative histories for Alaska park units. His paper topic for this conference is excerpted from the two-volume Crown Jewel of the North; an Administrative History of Denali National Park and Preserve (2007 and 2009).