After 20 years, Juneau islands become parks

Posted: Sunday, June 01, 2008

A popular plan to expand the Alaska Marine Park System on several islands around Juneau should have been an easy sell.

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Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

With strong local support and no opposition, most thought it would be easy to win support from the Legislature and governor.

But due to what observers described as a lack of interest, the effort took about 20 years to complete.

"Golly, I'm trying to remember when it started - I think it was in the late 1980s," said Fran Ulmer, who represented Juneau in the Legislature starting in 1987.

Her effort was just one of many which tried to make the islands state parks, which faltered before this year. This year the bill was finally passed by the Legislature, and is awaiting Gov. Sarah Palin's signature.

Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, sponsored Senate Bill 57, adding 14 Juneau-area islands to the state's system of Marine Parks.

"I can't think of anybody who is opposed to this," Elton said.

Support in Juneau was widespread.

"I think it is a great idea," said Ted Merrill, a longtime Juneau resident who was one of many people over the years so saw efforts to turn the islands - already owned by the state - into parks.

"There wasn't any opposition, there just wasn't enough interest," Merrill said.

There wasn't enough interest outside Juneau to pass the necessary state law. In Juneau, there was strong support, said Jim King, who has promoted the idea as a parks advisory committee member for years.

"They're extensively used by Juneau people for picnics, for camping, there's nice little beaches on almost all of them," he said.

"They're just really neat little islands," he said.

The smallest of the islands are specks on the map. The largest, including Lincoln and Shelter are a few thousand acres each. The parks designation would not affect the privately owned parts of Shelter Island.

Part of original motivation for turning them into parks was the possibility that public access was at risk.

"The concern was that these areas were going to be disposed of by the state, and turned into private holdings so the public wouldn't have access," said Ulmer, now chancellor of the University of Alaska-Anchorage.

The biggest islands have deer populations and are popular with hunters, Elton said. His bill was amended to specifically allow hunting, he said.

King said the islands may become similar to an island park system is Boston. The harbor there has a network of islands that have played different roles since colonial days, including forts, prisons, a mental hospital and a dump. These days they're a popular park system, with access from a local ferry system.

"As far as I know there isn't any other similar site in America," he said.

Elton's bill includes $15,000 to help with park system costs, and the Territorial Sportsmen have expressed an interest in helping state parks with the islands, he said.

"There's a need to have some fire rings where people camp so they're not burning up the roots on the trees and killing trees, and some of the popular areas are in bad need of outhouses," King said.

"A little attention from the state park system will be a great asset," he said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or

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