25 years later, conservation act drives boom

Alaska tourism flourishes as visitors flock to see wild lands

Posted: Sunday, April 24, 2005

ANCHORAGE - Twenty-five years ago, Alaska stood on the verge of the biggest land lockup in the history of the world. Prodded by the administration of then-President Jimmy Carter, the U.S. Congress was considering the creation of more than 100 million acres of new national parks, refuges and other protected areas in the 49th state.

Some people in the North were near panic that the legislation would bankrupt Alaska's economic future. In April 1980, the Alaska Legislature approved a $4.5 million plan for a national media campaign to try to stop the so-called Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

The effort failed.

Eight months later, Alaska's future was formally cemented in place as America's last great wilderness area. Congress created 23 wild and scenic rivers, 10 national parks, nine wildlife refuges and tripled the acreage in the restrictive national Wilderness Preservation System.

Once considered a major threat to the Alaska economy, the land lockup has turned into something of an economic bonanza. Tourism has skyrocketed since the passage of ANILCA.

Gone forever is the myth of the 49th state as Seward's Icebox, a cold and forbidding place that only the most adventurous would ever dare visit. Replacing it was the vision of America's Serengeti, a place where bountiful wild animals run free and unpeopled scenery overwhelms.

At the start of the 1980s, Alaska was getting only a half-million tourists a year, despite the publicity the state had attracted as battles raged between environmentalists and oil companies over such issues as the construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline and the struggle over Section 17 d-2 of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

Oh, how things would change. By the middle of the 1990s, nearly a million people a year were visiting Alaska.

That has just kept growing. Last year, more than 1.5 million visitors showed up to see the sights and spend their money.

Some now question if maybe there aren't too many visitors, though few harbor resentments about the parks and refuges created in 1980. Fading in time are the memories of the political battles that preceded the doubling in size of the national park system.

"Oh, it was a mighty battle all the way," said Peg Tileston, a matriarchal figure in the Alaska environmental movement.

The battle that raged for almost a decade after the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act resolved one major Alaska dispute. That same act opened the door for an even more contentious battle.

Section 17 d-2 of the act called for a congressional review of the remaining public lands in Alaska to determine which should be considered for new national parks, national forests, refuges, wild and scenic rivers or national recreation areas.

By the mid-1970s, "d-2" had become the catchphrase around which was waged the greatest political battle in the history of the young state.

Former Seward resident Pam Oldow remembers how emotions ran deep in that community at the head of Resurrection Bay. Most everyone saw a Kenai Fjords National Park proposed by environmentalists as an economic doomsday.

At the time, Seward had lost nearly all its shipping business to the new Port of Anchorage. The community was struggling to rebuild its economy as a staging area for mining, timber development and the shipment of those resources overseas.

A national park, with all the development restrictions parks entail, appeared to threaten all that.

"A park?" Oldow said last week in telephone conversation from her retirement home in Washington state, "I wasn't for it."

Most of the people in Seward weren't. The Seward City Council opposed it. The Seward Chamber of Commerce opposed it. City and business leaders testified against it.

The park came anyway, and it transformed Seward.

The economic boom that city fathers had hoped to see spawned by resource exploitation came, instead, in the form of people lining up to pay to engage in resource admiration.

Oldow and her husband, Don, were among the first to take advantage. They founded Kenai Fjords Tours to move tourists beyond Resurrection Bay into the new national park's most scenic waters: Aialak Bay, Holgate Arm and Northwestern Fjord.

Oldow remembers the first reaction to this idea:

"Someone said, 'That's a super fun idea, Pam. Where are you going to get the people?'"

From almost everywhere, as it turned out. From Anchorage and Seattle and Chicago. From Oregon and Kansas and Massachusetts. From England and France and Australia and increasingly now from elsewhere around the Pacific Rim.

When the National Park Service first started counting visitors to Kenai Fjords National Park in 1982, there were 16,000. By 1997, the number had climbed to 300,000. Since '97, it has remained in the range of 240,000 to 300,000 visitors a summer.

A 2001 study by Scott Goldsmith and Stephanie Martin at the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage concluded park tourism is a $52 million-a-year business for Seward.

More than half the employment in the community, the study said, comes from transportation, trade and services related to tourism.

The economists noted 3.7 percent annual growth in employment and a 9.9 percent annual growth in summer retail sales from 1987 to 2000.

But Pam Oldow, who still comes back to visit regularly in the summer, sees what the park has meant in more human terms. Two years ago, she said, Kenai Fjords Tours - the business she and her husband started and eventually sold - invited the couple on a free tour of the bay.

"They put us on one (boat) with an older captain," Oldow said. "His name was Bob. He was the sweetest guy on earth. They told him to take us anywhere we wanted to go. Other passengers didn't have a clue."

So the Oldows directed the boat to all their favorite places along the outer coast of the Kenai Peninsula.

Later, back in Seward, Oldow added, the couple were asked to stay on the boat after the rest of the passengers left; the captain wanted to speak with them.

"He had tears down his face," Pam remembered. "He said, 'I want to thank you for everything. This is the longest I've ever stayed on one job in my life.'"

Pam confesses she can empathize with strong feelings about what the park has brought to one small corner of the state.

"Every one of our grandchildren paid their way through university working for Kenai Fjords Tours," she said. "They all paid for their education."

Not all of the parks in Alaska have been such economic successes. Not all of the people living next to them wanted them - 25 years ago or today. But with National Park Week concluding today, it is a good time to look back.

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