Land Use and Management
The vast majority of Alaska’s 375 million acres is publicly owned, with less than 1 percent in private hands. Some 60 percent of this land is under federal management, with most of the rest in state or Native Alaskan corporation hands. Get complete details on Alaska’s public lands from Alaska Public Lands Information Centers (www.alaskacenters.gov) in Anchorage (907/271-2737), Ketchikan, Tok, and Fairbanks.
National Park Service
In the federal scheme of things, the National Park Service gets all the glory. The national parks are the country’s scenic showcases, and visitors come by the millions, usually to look, occasionally to experience. Denali National Park and Preserve—home to North America’s highest mountain—is Alaska’s most famous and overloved park, attracting well over 1 million tourists each year.
Other well-known Alaskan national parks—Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, Katmai National Park and Preserve, Kenai Fjords National Park, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, Sitka National Historical Park, and Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve—are high on the list for travelers, and offer both visitors centers and various park activities.
The other eight national parks and preserves (Aniakchak, Bering Land Bridge, Cape Krusenstern, Gates of the Arctic, Kobuk Valley, Lake Clark, Noatak, and Yukon-Charley Rivers) are so inaccessible that those with any facilities at all are prohibitively expensive for the average traveler, and the others are really no more than a name and a set of boundaries on the map.
People accustomed to national parks in the Lower 48 are surprised to find that very few trails run through Alaska’s 15 parks. Most of the 54 million acres of national parkland are unforested and in the moist alpine tundra, where trails are not only unnecessary but largely detrimental to the ecology: As soon as the insulating ground cover is removed, the melting permafrost turns the trail into a muddy, impassable quagmire. Even in Denali, the only trails are around the park entrance and hotel area.
Some parks (such as Denali, Glacier Bay, and Katmai) require backpacking permits; in the rest you’re on your own. Several of the more accessible parks (Denali, Kenai Fjords, Klondike Gold Rush, Katmai, and Glacier Bay) have designated camping areas, but in the others you can pitch your tent on any level patch.
In Alaska, the U.S. Forest Service manages the nation’s two largest national forests: Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska and Chugach National Forest in Southcentral Alaska. These forests cover 23 million acres of land, much of which is forested, but also comprising high mountains, glaciers, lakes, large rivers, and wild coastlines. Two national monuments within the Tongass—Admiralty Island and Misty Fiords—are popular with travelers, and 19 wilderness areas cover 5.7 million acres in the Tongass.
Both Tongass and Chugach are popular recreation destinations, with hundreds of miles of hiking trails and a number of campgrounds (free–$16) and visitor centers. Also within these forests are more than 180 wilderness cabins ($25–50), a few of which are reachable by road or trail, with the others accessible only by floatplane or boat.
You must reserve them well in advance through Recreation.gov (518/885-3639 or 877/444-6777, www.recreaton.gov, $10 fee). Brochures describing the cabins are available from Forest Service offices or from Alaska Public Lands Information Centers in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Tok, and Ketchikan.
Fish and Wildlife Service
The Fish and Wildlife Service manages 16 different refuges covering more than 75 million acres in Alaska. Most of these are in remote regions that see little visitation (other than local subsistence hunters and fishermen), but they provide vital habitat for birds and other animals. The best-known Alaskan refuges are Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on the North Slope, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge on the Kenai Peninsula, and Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge on Kodiak Island.
Kenai sees the most tourists and has a visitors center, hiking trails, canoe routes, and campgrounds. Kodiak has a visitors center plus a number of public-use cabins available for rent. The large new Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center in Homer provides a great introduction to the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, which sprawls across 2,500 Alaskan islands.
The nation’s largest refuge (20 million acres) is Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge in Western Alaska. For details on all 16 refuges, contact the Fish and Wildlife Service (907/786-3909, http://alaska.fws.gov).
Bureau of Land Management
Alaska’s largest land-management agency (over 90 million acres) is the Bureau of Land Management (BLM, 907/271-5960, www.blm.gov/ak). Most BLM land is undeveloped, but three popular recreation sites—White Mountains National Recreation Area, Chena River State Recreation Area, and Steese Natural Conservation Area—feature a handful of hiking trails, campgrounds, and public cabins in the vicinity of Fairbanks.
The State of Alaska owns 89 million acres—almost a quarter of the state—and manages this land for a variety of purposes, from mineral and oil development to state forests. The state manages more than 110 state parks and recreation areas spread over 3 million acres. Located in western Alaska, Wood-Tikchik State Park is the largest state park in the country, encompassing 1.5 million acres.
More accessible—it’s the most popular state park in Alaska—is Chugach State Park, which covers nearly 500,000 acres bordering Anchorage. Most of these state parks and recreation sites have trails and campgrounds. Camping fees are typically $10 per night, with some parks charging a $5 day-use fee. A number of state parks have public-use cabins for $65 per night.
For additional state park information call 907/269-8400 to request brochures and a statewide park map, or visit www.alaskastateparks.org. You can also use this website to check cabin availability; reservations are made at Department of Natural Resources public information offices in Anchorage or Fairbanks or at state park offices.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game manages more than 30 state refuges, critical habitat areas, and wildlife sanctuaries, including the world-famous bear-viewing area at McNeil River and the Walrus Islands near Dillingham. It also jointly manages (with the Forest Service) the Pack Creek brown bear–viewing area on Admiralty Island. Also popular is Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge in Fairbanks. The agency issues sportfishing and hunting permits. For details on all its activities, contact the ADF&G (907/465-4180, www.state.ak.us/adfg).
Today, the 12 regional Native Alaskan corporations and more than 200 village and urban corporations created in 1971 by the ANCSA own some 37 million acres in Alaska. Much of this is closed to public access except with special permits; fees are commonly charged.
The ANCSA attempted to bring Native Alaskans into the mainstream of society, and it has succeeded in some ways while failing in others. Surprisingly, the corporations created by the act have become primary forces in logging, mining, and other developments around the state, in sharp contrast to the preserve-the-land policies that might have been anticipated.
In parts of Southeast and Southcentral Alaska the Native Alaskan lands have been nearly all logged over; I know of one place where they logged almost within spitting distance of a Native Alaskan cemetery and historic clan house. (Of course, these developments are driven by money, since corporations need profits to survive and to pay dividends to their Native Alaskan shareholders.)
© Don Pitcher from Moon Alaska, 10th Edition