South Denali Visitor Center

South Denali Visitor Center Comments

December 27, 2007
Sent to:
James King and Bill Kiger, Alaska State Parks
Senator Charlie Huggins
Representative Mark Neuman
Paul Anderson and Miriam Valentine, Denali National Park and Preserve
Tom Kluberton and John Dufey, Mat-Su Borough
John Strasenburg, State Parks Advisory Board
Ron Zimmerman, Planner from Stevens Point, Wisconsin

Dear South Denali planners and land managers,

The Alaska Quiet Rights Coalition (AQRC) believes that the natural soundscape is a key element of a South Denali Interpretive Plan. The AQRC would like to take this opportunity to comment on the proposed South Denali visitor center and related infrastructure not only in terms of quiet recreation but also with respect to the importance of maintaining, over time, the overall integrity of the natural resources of Denali State Park and the quality of the visitor experience.

The AQRC is a statewide nonprofit organization that represents people who believe natural quiet and natural sounds are resources to be protected by public land managers. AQRC advocates that non-motorized recreation deserves a share of our public lands equal to those granted to motorized recreation and that wildlife and cabin owners deserves protection from motorized recreation.

The AQRC was founded, in part, on Denali State Park land use issues 12 years ago.

There are many good ideas for how to interpret the natural history, exploration, etc. of the region. When there is a view as magnificent as Denali and the Alaska Range it is fairly straight forward to design a building from which one can see it. Harder is to design a building so that it blends with the landscape such that it compliments, rather than conflicts with the land. Harder still is to design it so that visitors will slow down and relax enough to really take in the panoramic view of Alaska that will be spread out before them. The visitor center should be sustainable, energy efficient, and aesthetically pleasing in the landscape.

The land surrounding the visitor center should be free of extraneous noise. Visitors should be able enjoy the view of the Alaska Range from the visitor center and trail system in the area without having to listen to idling buses, a generator plant, nearby helicopter or air traffic or motorized recreation.

The planners from Stevens Point can do justice to a visitor center interpretive plan, but they made it clear that they were not tasked with the job of coming up with regulations to protect the South Denali region, or even Denali State Park itself. To adequately ensure a high quality visitor experience, it is vital to control how the land is used, both within Denali State Park and in the surrounding areas.

What is needed before a visitor center development takes place and brings a huge increase of people and activities to the area is resource protection, regulations on activities and funding for monitoring and enforcement.

The big question is: Who is going to take on these big issues that will so critically affect just what the region becomes as more and more people and activities are funneled to South Denali? How can the region be protected from its own popularity?

The Alaska Quiet Rights Coalition feels that it will be hard to gain significant support for the development of a South Denali visitor center on Curry Ridge until there are strict regulations in place to protect the natural soundscape of the area from motorized recreation, until prime wildlife habitat has been identified, until there are meaningful mitigation plans in place to protect wildlife habitat to compensate for the displacement of wildlife a visitor center complex and associated infrastructure and activities will have to the area and until there are strict enforceable zoning regulations in place to keep strip development from destroying not only the view shed, but also the wilderness mystique of South Denali. In the last round of public meetings and the scoping process for south side development the public agreed that the south end of Denali State Park was a desirable location for a visitor center only if the above mentioned elements were a part of the plan.

It is not prudent to build a visitor center hoping such measures for protecting the integrity of South Denali will automatically follow. It is imperative that resource protections be in place before a visitor complex (approach road, campground, visitor center, supporting facilities) are constructed.

It is also very important that a complete plan is in place and each element of the plan has funding before construction begins. It would be very irresponsible, for example, for an access road to be cut into this wild area before funding was secured for the visitor center to be completed.

The AQRC has determined that the following items need to be accomplished before a visitor center is built to ensure that the long term quality of South Denali for visitors and wildlife is maintained:

1) Conduct comprehensive biological surveys to determine prime wildlife habitat. This has been recommended for many years, but has still not taken place. The visitor center and its corresponding infrastructure, the huge influx of visitors it will attract to the region and all the associated activities it will bring is going to have a detrimental effect on the region’s wildlife. Prime bear denning and feeding areas, Trumpeter swan nesting habitat, wintering moose browse feeding areas, Bald eagle nesting sites, etc. need to be identified and protected. Construction of the visitor center and off site development on private land to accommodate the growth in tourism is going to directly impact wildlife populations. A variety of activities from hiking, snowmobiling and boating will add further stresses to these populations. To mitigate loss of habitat the increased visitation and range of activities will have on wildlife, land managers must know what habitat is most important to wildlife (this includes places to go where they can quietly rest, feed and breed undisturbed) and put regulations in place to protect these areas. Meaningful requirements to protect wildlife include the purchasing of private inholdings, the modification of hunting regulations, closing areas to motorized and/or non motorized use at certain times of year, or confining use to specific trails.

2) Regulate winter motorized use in Denali State Park and Denali National Park and Preserve. Close Curry Ridge to snowmobiling. Non motorized recreational activities need fair allocation of State Park lands. Heavy recreational snowmobiling, like that taking place in regions of South Denali, overwhelm non-motorized quiet recreation like cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. It is impossible for those wishing to enjoy winter silence and vistas to do so where snowmobiles dominate the human experience.

Snowmobilers have stated that snowmobiling is a “traditional” activity on Curry Ridge. Nowhere in the State of Alaska is riding on powerful, high tech machines with paddle tracks a “traditional” activity. Traditionally Curry Ridge was accessed by foot from the Alaska Railroad. Later it was accessed by wheel and float planes mostly for hunting, especially bear. When the Parks Highway was opened north of the Chulitna River bridge in the early 1970s people began accessing Curry Ridge from the highway by foot. During the same period the State of Alaska began leasing and selling Recreational Homesite property west of the Chulitna River and south of Denali State Park and people began accessing these lands by snowmobile. In the 1980s as the population increased, the Petersville area gained popularity. As snowmachine technology and dependability increased snowmobiling in the Tokositna lowlands exploded, but still people were not snowmobiling on Curry Ridge. Snowmachine use only occurred sporadically on Curry Ridge in the 1990s after State Parks proposed to close the region to motorized use as had recently been done with aircraft.

Land managers need to do what is right for resource protection and the quality of visitor experience at a visitor center and close Curry Ridge to snowmobiling.

There are other areas of the park such as K’esugi Ridge that should also be closed to motorized use and other places such as the Tokositna Valley where snowmachine use should be confined to a trail system. Park planners and managers should visit Eureka, Broad Pass or Petersville on a busy snowmobiling day. For miles the snow is packed by snowmachine use. The winter landscape is scarred, motorized noise prevails, there is an amusement park atmosphere and who knows what has become of wintering wildlife. This disregard and abuse of Alaska’s wild land is unacceptable at a visitor center built by the State and National Parks, both entities that promote the protection of our natural resources.

3) Protect the scenic vistas that are now available as one approaches and drives through Denali State Park. Buy out private inholdings in the park and create zoning regulations that will keep the Parks Highway corridor from becoming an unsightly strip development. The Denali State Park Master Plan (page 68 of the June 2006 Plan) recommends the purchase of inholdings. As early as 1974 (right after the Parks
Highway opened) park managers realized what a problem these inholdings were going to have on protecting park values. Where inholdings are impossible to buy out there should be strict zoning regulations that will ensure that the scenic beauty of the Parks Highway corridor is maintained.

Land use controls that will protect the scenic quality of the highway corridor between Trapper Creek and Denali State Park are needed. Most of this corridor is owned by the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. For the long term success of a South Denali visitor center it is paramount that the Matanuska-Susitna Borough put controls in place that will ensure responsible and esthetically pleasing development where it is within the view shed along this stretch of highway and disallow any development along many scenic sections. The scenic landscape of the Alaska Range is spectacular right from the road. Photos of this view appear everywhere advertising the grandeur of Alaska – the stereotypical wildness that attracts so many people to this State and will be the catalyst of drawing visitors to South Denali. It will easily be marred by unregulated private development that is sure to follow the construction of a visitor center. A Wasilla or Glitter Gulch-like commercial zone at the base of the Alaska Range will not enhance the region, in fact it is tantamount to killing the goose that laid the golden egg. It must be recognized that no amount of zoning will wholly prevent that from occurring, only buying out inholdings will.

Realizing the negative impacts that uncontrolled development at the south end of Denali State Park would have due to the many private inholdings and the uncertainty of what will happen with Matanuska-Susitna Borough property adjacent to the Parks Highway south of the park to Trapper Creek, past plans for building a visitor center have shied away from the south end of the park. In fact the reason why the 1989 Denali State Park Master Plan (after exhaustive study) didn’t choose the south end of the park for a visitor center location was because of the extensive inholdings which would be developed should a visitor center be built. These inholdings are now being developed including the huge Denali Princess Hotel.

During this most recent scoping process it has been determined that the south end of Curry Ridge is the most desirable location for a visitor center. To ensure that this is indeed the best decision, development on private land is going to have to be controlled. Inside the park inholdings must be purchased or the Special Land Use regulations must be tightened up. South of the park land use controls are necessary as well agreements to keep the Matanuska-Susitna Borough property within the view shed at least in public domain.

Requiring biological surveys, protecting wildlife habitat, controlling snowmobiling use, fairly allocating park lands to non-motorized recreation, buying out private inholdings and regulating development to protect the scenic quality of the South Denali region as prerequisites to developing a visitor center facility are neither new ideas nor are they being recommended for the first time. For more then 30 years a variety of visitor center developments have been proposed to showcase the south side of Denali to the world. Public comment period after public comment period has followed extensive and expensive planning processes. The public, State Parks Advisory Boards and a variety of organizations have opposed many past plans not necessarily for what they proposed doing, but rather for what they failed to address.

The three main items we have stipulated that need to be accomplished in this current South Denali plan are the same as have been recommended before. The State in each case failed to act on any of these important issues, the public lost confidence in land managers’ ability or will to responsibly develop a visitor center and protect park values and the projects lost support and momentum. In fact most past visitor center proposals became highly controversial and were opposed in a large part due to the lack of protecting overall park values.

There is no doubt that South Denali is a world treasure. There are tremendous opportunities for Alaskan residents and international and other visitors to experience in this region. To have this visitor center proposal become a reality it is time for politicians and land managers to break away from the mistakes and omissions of the past and to provide funding and management to responsibly develop a South Denali visitor center facility that adheres to Denali State Parks mission:

“Denali State Park shall be managed and developed in a manner compatible with the following goals:

I. Protect the natural and cultural resources of the park and ensure that the park’s resources are maintained to allow for the public’s experience and understanding of the unique natural features that are found in this part of Alaska.

II. In a manner that is compatible with Goal I, provide for a variety of opportunities for visitors to the park to experience and understand the park’s natural and cultural resources, including viewing Denali. Park facilities shall be designed and developed to support the public use and understanding of the park and its resources and not serve as attractions in and of themselves.

III. In a manner that is compatible with Goals I and II, recognize and accommodate, in so far as reasonable, the diverse needs of different types of visitors to the park. Avoid conflicts between different groups of visitors or between visitors and park resources.”

The South Denali Implementation Plan which recommended building a visitor center on Curry Ridge (not exactly at the site proposed now) states (page 3):

The purpose of the plan (developed by the National Park Service, State of Alaska and Matanuska-Susitna Borough) is to enhance recreation and access throughout the South Denali region. Actions described by this plan should:

“- Provide quality visitor experience while protecting resource values in the South Denali region.

– Enhance recreational and access opportunities throughout South Denali region for the benefit of a wide variety of visitors including Alaskans, independent travelers, and package tour travelers.

– Preserve the quality of life for residents in nearby communities.”

The executive summary of the plan also states: “A South Denali
Implementation Plan is needed because visitation in the South Denali region continues to increase, requiring additional visitor opportunities and new methods of management to protect natural and cultural resources and quality of life in local communities.”

Only when these documents’ recommendations are fully adhered to will South Denali development proceed forward in a responsible manner that will hold up to public scrutiny and protect the very values of the area that are making it such a desirable place to establish a visitor center.

The AQRC sincerely hopes that land managers will prioritize the protection of wildlife habitat, the establishment of non-motorized use areas and other controls on snowmachine use and regulate highway corridor development as part of developing a visitor center on Curry Ridge.

It is time to take a different tack and look at South Denali development not as just another construction project, but as something that will offer a world class visitor experience while protecting the park natural resources for the future. This means doing the hard work, the politically challenging work, to fund what is necessary to accomplish this: purchase inholdings, fund biological and natural resource inventories, establish land use controls on development south of the park, and regulate activities within the park for the protection of wildlife and those seeking a South Denali experience without sight, sound or presence of motorized activity that will degrade the wildness of the area.

Thank you for considering our comments seriously. Strive for excellence.


Brian Okonek, member of the Board of Directors, for
Trisha Herminghaus, President,
Alaska Quiet Rights Coalition
PO Box 202592
Anchorage, AK 99520