Snowmachines in Denali – What Happened to Traditional Activities?

On December 9, 2013, the National Park Service issued a press release that has been routine for about a decade. It was entitled, “All Southern Portions of 1980 Park Additions to Denali National Park and Preserve Now Open to Snowmobiling for Traditional Activities,” and the first sentence read, “The Superintendent of Denali National Park and Preserve has determined that there is now adequate snow cover for the use of snowmobiles for traditional activities in areas of the 1980 park and preserve additions that are south of the crest of the Alaska Range.”

Picking up the press release, on December 10 the Fairbanks Daily News Miner reported that “The south side of Denali National Park and Preserve is open to snowmachines” and KTNA radio in Talkeetna announced that “part of the southern portion of Denali National Park are now open for snowmachine use.” Note the change from the press release to the news stories – the dropping of the words “for traditional activities.”

The missing three words mean that the public is also missing an important part of the story. Typically in national parks throughout the U.S., snowmachines are prohibited unless specifically allowed. But the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 (ANILCA) included language that allowed snowmachine use “for traditional activities” within conservation system units in Alaska, including national parks like Denali. This ANILCA exception to the “normal” national park rules resulted in a successful effort to close the former Mount McKinley National Park to all snowmachine use in 2000. (The “Old Park” had been closed prior to 1980, but after years of confusion it was determined that ANILCA had inadvertently opened it.) The status of snowmachine use in the park additions and preserve lands remain unchanged.

However, neither the statute nor the implementing regulations allow snowmachine use for any purpose, as a reader might believe from perusing the news reports. As noted above, ANILCA qualified the acceptable reason for snowmachine access, which must be “for traditional activities.” So what are those “traditional activities?” Unfortunately, the term has never been defined in regulation for the park additions, so NPS has no way of deciding which snowmachine users are there for traditional activities and which are there for something else. As a result, no one gets turned away as long as they do not cross the Old Park boundary. This issue was not resolved in the 2006 Backcountry Management Plan, and remains unresolved today as various agencies and interest groups have been deadlocked over whether Congress intended that “traditional activities” be related to traditional rural uses of the land or whether the intent was to include “traditional activities” for national parks like sightseeing, photography, wildlife watching, and other recreational pursuits.*

Back in 2000 and leading up to the 2006 Backcountry Management Plan, there was much discussion at public meetings and in the media about “traditional activities” in the context of snowmachine use at Denali. However, in the ensuing years public consciousness of this qualifier has faded. Increasingly, the reality on the ground is becoming simply that the park additions are “open.” The National Park Service is losing this argument by default, along with those members of the public who are concerned about preserving places for non-motorized recreational activities, protection of wilderness values, snowmachine impacts on wildlife, and so forth.

DCC has separately argued that Denali’s 2006 Backcountry Management Plan (BCMP) contains standards for encounter rates, motorized noise, and signs of modern human use among others that should be applied to the snowmachine use in park additions. If standards are not being met, NPS should use the tools in the Backcountry Management Plan to regulate that use, even if the use is “for traditional activities.” However, since 2006 NPS has not reported whether snowmachine use in Denali has resulted in violations of the BCMP standards.

The large increase in snowmachine use within national park boundaries was a major issue during the 7-year BCMP planning process. Seven years after the plan’s completion, snowmachine use in the Denali additions remains virtually unmanaged, save for the one tool that NPS claimed from ANILCA that has not been challenged, a parenthetical statement that snowmachines should be permitted “during periods of adequate snow cover.” Thus, every winter there are press releases declaring when snow cover is sufficient to “open” the park additions for snowmachine use for traditional activities and when snow cover has declined to the point where it is no longer adequate for such use, which is then prohibited. The adequate snow cover determination is a useful tool for reducing damage to vegetation, but the larger issues of snowmachine use go unaddressed, and now the misquoted and under-explained press releases have become a rhetorical tool reinforcing the public consciousness that Denali is simply open to snowmachines. This outcome is tragic, since snowmachines have tremendous impacts, and neither Congress nor the National Park Service has ever clearly determined that a snowmachine free-for-all was intended by ANILCA or consistent with the purposes of Denali. The extent of snowmachine use in the park and preserve should not be resolved by default.

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* The regulation which closed the former Mount McKinley National Park (36 CFR 13.950) contained a definition for traditional activities that applies only to the Old Park and only to snowmachine use, where ANILCA referred to snowmachines, airplanes, and motorboats. It reads:

A traditional activity is an activity that generally and lawfully occurred in the Old Park contemporaneously with the enactment of ANILCA, and that was associated with the Old Park, or a discrete portion thereof, involving the consumptive use of one or more natural resources of the Old Park such as hunting, trapping, fishing, berry picking or similar activities. Recreational use of snowmachines was not a traditional activity. If a traditional activity generally occurred only in a particular area of the Old Park, it would be considered a traditional activity only in the area where it had previously occurred. In addition, a traditional activity must be a legally permissible activity in the Old Park.

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