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Report: Glacier Bay a healthy park

Park advocacy group says cultural resources could be better preserved

Posted: Thursday, September 11, 2008

A new report says Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve's natural resources are in tip-top shape, but its cultural resources could use more attention.

Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire File
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire File

"We took a snapshot of Glacier Bay, and it's doing well," said Jim Stratton, Alaska spokesman for the National Parks Conservation Association, which released the report Wednesday. "There's a lot of parks in America that would kill for these kind of scores."

His group advocates for the national park system. It is assessing the health of the entire system. The group says lack of funding is the system's biggest problem.

Glacier Bay got an 89 of 100, one of the highest scores nationwide, for its natural resources, which are relatively remote and little visited.

More than 400,000 people visit the 3.2 million-acre park each year. Most come on large cruise ships. Yellowstone National Park, in contrast, is two-thirds the size and gets 2.9 million visitors a year.

The park needs more money for cultural resources, the report said. Two percent of the park's $4.2 million now goes to cultural programs, a bit more budgeted for next year.

The park is the spiritual homeland of the Huna Tlingit, and the preserve is the homeland of the Ghunaaxho Kwaan unit of the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe. The Huna Tlingit had a camp at Bartlett Cove, now occupied by the park's headquarters and the Glacier Bay Lodge.

The park service historically had a terrible relationship with Alaska Natives.

"They were really created with a scenery bias," said Gustavus resident and amateur historian Kim Heacox of the national park system.

"There was a huge disconnect," said Cherry Payne, Glacier Bay's park superintendent since earlier this year.

That's improved, especially over the last 10 years. Things leaped forward when the Park Service and the Hoonah Indian Association, a federally recognized tribe, signed a memorandum of agreement in 1996 to re-engage Huna Tlingit people with their ancestral homeland.

These days, the park is busy finalizing an congressionally mandated environmental review of whether Huna Tlingit can sustainably collect seagull eggs from the park. Initial data suggests they can, Payne said.

A Tlingit-speaking park employee is transcribing oral histories from both Native and non-Native elders. And an archivist will soon arrive to catalog and care for the park's many cultural artifacts, which are in disarray.

The park has been interested for years in collaborating to build a Tlingit longhouse near headquarters, but doesn't have the funding.

The advocacy group's report suggested some key areas to protect Glacier Bay's natural resources.

The park lacks baseline biological data needed to document how various activities and climate change will affect the park's ecology, the report said.

One concern is the fisheries harvest. Local halibut depletion "may be one of the larger resource extraction threats facing Glacier Bay," the report said.

Commercial fishing in Glacier Bay is phasing out. Permits aren't being issued anymore, and existing permits can't be transferred. But recreational fishing is on the rise.

"Park managers must ensure that the sport fishery does not grow to supplant the commercial harvest as the latter wanes," the report said.

Heacox said park's neighbors have their concerns - for instance, how much boat traffic and cruise ship tourism the area gets, how wildlife and cultural resources are managed.

But in general, he called the park "a remarkable success."

"I try to look past the minutia of decisions that have been made this year or last year," he said. "In today's hyperconsumptive, ardently capitalistic world, let's just think about how amazing it is that we have national parks."

Read the report online at http://www.npca.org/stateoftheparks/glacier_bay/

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or kate.golden@juneauempire.com.



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