Vibrant colors greet Denali visitors as season winds down

Binkley says national park is a vital draw for cruise ship tourists

Posted: Monday, September 07, 2009

DENALI NATIONAL PARK - Denali rolled out her fabled tundra carpet for visitors in mid-August, sprawling acres of fiery red, orange, green and gold, lush with wild berries and wildlife preparing for winter.

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Margaret Bauman / Alaska Journal Of Commerce
Margaret Bauman / Alaska Journal Of Commerce

Tiny pink blossoms at the peak of otherwise bare fireweed, and the sudden presence of Jack Frost all over this 6 million acre national park and preserve signaled the abrupt end of summer in this sub arctic wilderness within Alaska's Interior.

Beavers were busy remodeling their dams for the long, freezing winter ahead, while grizzly bears bounded across the tundra of many colors, gathering some of the millions of berries in preparation for hibernation. Cow moose wandered with calves in tow and bull moose, already losing the velvet on their antlers, braced for the rut the mating season. Caribou, wolves, foxes, arctic hares and other mammals scurried too, to hunt for food, and overhead, a flock of trumpeter swans prepared to migrate south.

For those relying on vegetation alone, there are more than 650 species of flowering plants to choose from, as well as species of mosses, lichens, fungi, algae and others. Only plants adaptable to long, cold winters and short growing season can survive here.

The park was originally established in 1917 as Mt. McKinley National Park,

Bustamonte, vice president of community and public affairs for Princess Tours. "Denali has the strongest name recognition of all the parks in the U.S.

"When people come to Alaska, they want to experience mountains and wildlife. It's a very important anchor for our land tours. People can spend two to three days experiencing the park," he said.

So important is Denali to the visitor industry that the Alaska Cruise Association was a major sponsor of a recent trip to Alaska by award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns, to promote his new documentary series on America's national parks. "The exposure we are going to get will be tremendous for Alaska," said Binkley. "I think it will certainly make a difference, get Alaska's name out there." The 12-hour, six part series will begin airing in late September on public broadcasting television stations nationwide.

If Binkley is right, that will be good news for Denali National Park, where the number of visitors has declined so far in 2009 by 18-20 percent from a year ago.

Kris Fister, a spokeswoman for Denali National Park, said most of the shuttle buses in the park were pretty full in late August, but for most of the summer the demand for seats on them was down 18-20 percent. A total of 102,894 people visited the park in July, compared with 129,762 visitors in July 2008, she said. In June, the visitor tally totaled 90,606, down from 114,888 in June 2008, she said.

Fewer visitors would have an impact on the ability of park staff to do future projects, as 80 percent of the money from entrance fees goes to improve trails and campgrounds. It would also have an affect on small communities in the area, who rely on summer tourism visitors as customers at hotels, and other sleeping accommodations, restaurant diners and souvenir hunters.

The Interior Department allocated Denali National Park a base budget of $12.6 million for the current year to pay permanent salaries and for base operations. This year some $16 million in federal economic stimulus monies, allocated under the National Park Service Recovery Act, also was in place for needed improvements. Park officials will use about $6.4 million of that money to construct consolidated emergency services, and another $6.3 million will finance replacement of the entrance area wastewater treatment facility, which is out of compliance, Fister said.

Also on the list are closing a mine shaft near Kantishna, a historic mining area some 90 miles inside the park, rehabilitation of comfort stations and campgrounds, repair of trail surfaces, replacement of aging unit heaters in the park's auto shop and fixing sewer lines at the Wonder Lake ranger station.

"We are trying to do a lot for visitors, and also to make sure we aren't doing environmental damage," Fister said. "We have done surveys for the last couple of summers. We get rated on facilities, and we have gotten 98 percent ratings, so we know they appreciate it."

The federal dollars aside, the park is always looking for public support from aficionados of this abundant wilderness. Donations are welcome in the form of monetary gifts, volunteering and purchases from the Alaska Geographic, a non-profit bookstore, publisher, educator and supporter of Alaska's magnificent parks, forests and refuges. To date, Alaska Geographic has given $20 million in financial support and services to Alaska's public lands, including Denali.

Each year the park benefits from the efforts of over 300 volunteers who assist in a variety of projects, including trail work, vegetation management, building maintenance and construction, staffing visitor centers and providing information to park visitors.

Denali also gets much support from the National Parks Conservation Association, which is organizing a week of house parties nationwide in late September, in conjunction with the premier of Ken Burns documentary, The National Parks: America's Best Idea, to raise awareness of and educate people about America's national parks.

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