AQRC Advises New Superintendent of Its Concerns re South Denali Visitor Center

Dear Superintendent Striker,

The purpose of this letter is to introduce the Alaska Quiet Rights Coalition (AQRC) in general and our specific concerns about the South Denali Visitor center. As we earlier indicated in our letter to you, ADPOR and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough (MSB), we strongly urge that no development be initiated until full funding for all phases is in hand. We believe the history set forth below of the long and convoluted effort to locate a visitor center both explains and lends credence to our position.
The AQRC is dedicated to protecting the rights of Alaskans to quiet places for the benefit of public land users, home and cabin owners, communities, businesses, wildlife, visitors, and future generations.

Alaska’s natural beauty, wildness, wildlife, expanses of undisturbed open space, and peace and quiet are among its most cherished values, and Alaskans, our visitors, and future generations have the right to experience the natural sights, sounds and quiet beauty of our state. In the vast majority of cases, the obtrusive noise, summer landscape degradation and winter snowscape defacement, exhaust, and dangers of motorized recreation are incompatible with those special natural experiences and with quiet homes and neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, though, natural quiet and the opportunity to hear and enjoy natural sounds are increasingly hard to find in our state—a fact which would surprise the great majority of non-residents for whom Alaska is a potent symbol of the natural and the wild, not of noisy mechanization. Although there are many places in Alaska that look the same as they did 100 or more years ago, very few sound as they did only 10 or 20 years earlier.

Consequently, not only do we need to protect those quiet areas that still remain, but we need to restore many previously quiet lands to their former, more natural, more pristine condition. Most of us, until quite recently, took the restorative quiet of the outdoors for granted. We assumed that the backcountry would always provide a quiet refuge from the noise, busyness and artificiality of our towns and cities. That assumption, to our great chagrin, has proven to be false. We now know that natural quiet and natural sounds require our—the public, and the public’s stewards, the land managers—constant vigilance if they’re to survive even into the middle of our present century.

The AQRC would like to take this opportunity to provide you with background information about the proposal to build a destination visitor center in Denali State Park (DSP). There is a cooperative effort between the State of Alaska, the MSB and the National Park Service (NPS) to implement a plan to begin construction of a South Denali Visitor complex beginning in 2013. The planning process has been going on for over 40 years. During this time multiple locations for a visitor center have been proposed and rejected for a variety of reasons. There have been proposals to construct a visitor center up the Tokositna River valley at Long Creek, at High Lake near the north end of DSP, on the Chulitna River bluff near Byers Lake, atop the Peters Hills and even on CIRI property near Talkeetna. All proposals failed because they did not receive the broad support necessary to move the project forward. NPS originally got involved in part because they hoped such a development would take pressure off the north side of DNP&P. It is now widely believed that a south side visitor center will not draw people away from the north side, but rather add a venue for people see while in the Denali region. A major driving force for a South Denali development of major visitor facilities is the package tour industry. Since a destination visitor center will have significant and far reaching impacts to the South Denali region wide support is required to implement such a proposal.

The most recent proposal for locating a visitor center is near the south end of Curry Ridge located east of the George Parks Highway in the southeastern section of DSP. After a series of public meetings that went on for years there was support to locate a visitor center near the George Parks Highway in the southern portion of DSP. A location was proposed one mile NNE of Lake 1787′ at an elevation of approximately 1,720′ (Site 1). Not everyone favored this timberline location because of the fragile alpine environment.

This process led to the Record of Decision, dated June 30, 2006, and the DSP Management Plan updated in 2006 reflected this decision when it recommended a visitor center at Site 1. Site 1, however, had public support only if other critical criteria to assure a quality development were included. This criteria included conducting comprehensive biological surveys so that planners would know what wildlife habitat should be protected and how to mitigate for loss of habitat due to construction of facilities in the park, the buy out of several private inholdings in the park to protect the scenic vistas along the highway and to prevent strip development within the park, updating the Borough’s DSP Special Land Use District (SPUD) regulations to control development on private inholdings in the park to protect the area from chaotic and unsightly development, and that the State close areas within DSP to snow machine use to allow for a fair balance of recreation and to protect wintering wildlife. To date none of these conditional recommendations have taken place. These are critical issues that must be addressed before a visitor center is constructed to protect the wilderness character of the area and provide visitors with a quality experience.

Schmeeckle Reserve Interpreters prepared the South Denali Visitor Complex Interpretive Master Plan that was completed in May 2009. In this final plan the location of the visitor center was moved one mile south to a site near lake 1787′ at an elevation of 1,840′ (Site 2). This is a major change from what the public had commented on. This change in location is looked at as insignificant by State planners, however, and in their opinion does not require further public review or comment. We do not believe the public feels the same and that this project will lose broad support if Site 2 is not open to public comment. The change moves the visitor center to a much more fragile environment of alpine tundra on wind swept knolls. In past planning efforts there has always been resistance from the public to build in the alpine regions.

Regardless of which site the visitor center is proposed to be built at it would be on State Park land. It is expected that the visitor center construction, maintenance and staffing would be substantially funded by the NPS. State parks have always been under funded and DSP will require NPS funding to properly manage a South Denali visitor center. Activities allowed on the land surrounding the visitor center will be managed by Alaska State Parks however. All of DSP, as well as the adjacent DNP&P preserve lands, are open to snow machine use as long as there is adequate snow cover. AQRC has been urging the state for years to close the area around the proposed visitor center to snow machine use. AQRC strongly recommends that DSP lands south of the headwaters of Troublesome Creek with Troublesome Creek and the Parks Highway forming the west boundary and the Susitna River being the east boundary be closed to snow machine use. This would include both of the proposed visitor center sites. AQRC feels that doing this would protect the natural environment, including the soundscape, that many visitors coming to the region would appreciate experiencing. We draw your attention to the emphasis placed in the Interpretive Master Pan on providing the visitor with the opportunity to have a quiet experience in a wild, natural setting. There is a great need for there to be an accessible area on the south side of Denali for skiers and snowshoers to recreate where snow machines are not allowed to go. The ideal place would be around the proposed destination visitor center.

It is important to get this visitor center plan right. If there are inadequate regulations to protect the South Denali region an incredibly beautiful area will be seriously compromised. AQRC urges NPS to work with Alaska State Parks and the MSB to assure that they have regulations in place to protect the South Denali region from unsightly strip development and destructive motorized recreation.


Brian Okonek
President, Alaska Quiet Rights Coalition