DCC board members had an opportunity to sit down – via Zoom – with Denali’s new deputy superintendent Brooke Merrell in late February. We have been talking with Brooke for a little while since she started the position in an acting capacity in April of 2020, but as of early January she is the official occupant of deputy superintendent seat. She previously was the team lead for environmental planning and compliance in the NPS regional office in Anchorage, after a couple of other regional office positions. But Denali is really her first park as an NPS employee – she joined the Anchorage office from outside the agency, with experience working for DNA People’s Legal Service on the Navajo Reservation and for Columbia Riverkeeper among others. She has both law and planning degrees, and seems like a very good fit for Denali.
Merrell is also the park’s acting superintendent. Superintendent Don Striker is still in his own acting role as Regional Director, and will return to his position at Denali after that job is filled unless he is selected for the permanent role. The regional director decision may well be hung up in the change of federal administration, awaiting new Interior Department appointments and the selection of a new Director of the National Park Service. NPS is going to recruit another acting superintendent for a four-month term, so Denali’s leadership is expected to remain in limbo for a while longer.
Between the leadership gap and the pandemic, there do not seem to be any major new initiatives on the horizon. Our conversation was dominated by concerns over summer operations for 2021 and road construction projects.
Most of our readers know that Canada has effectively shut down much of the Alaskan cruise industry by prohibiting dockings until at least February of 2022. Since the foreign-flagged ships of Carnival, Royal Celebrity, and others are required by U.S. law to stop at a foreign port when sailing between U.S. ports, Canada’s decision means the Alaskan cruises cannot happen for the 2021 season. As a result, NPS is expecting light visitation again this summer.
As last year, visitor centers will not open and the bus schedule will be slim although with more service than in 2020. NPS is planning to allow private vehicles along the park road again this year, but only as far as Teklanika Rest Stop. Both increased transit and reduced personal vehicle access seem to be in response to (predicted) problems from the 2020 season. While an improvement over prior experience, DCC continues to advocate for a robust transit service to meet transportation needs instead of allowing even the temporary expansion of personal vehicle access. NPS tries to explain the personal vehicle exception as a coping mechanism for dealing with the pandemic, not to become a model for any future policy, but that official justification seems flimsy. A turnaround at Teklanika seems to invite problems with parking and controlling access further out the road, neither of which seemed to be resolved prior to the decision. We suspect there is some other political calculation taking place in the background.
Road construction projects will be obtrusive this summer, with projects at Stony and Toklat bridges, Toklat bluffs, Pretty Rocks (of course), milepost 38-43, and Ghiglione Bridge if contracting issues get sorted out. The resulting disruption is not good for either visitors or wildlife. The Toklat bluffs project is actually taking place in one of the monitored Vehicle Management Plan “sheep gaps,” in a spot where sheep are often seen close to the road. NPS is scheduling work to avoid the seasons when sheep are most frequently in the area. DCC has been advocating for avoiding any optional projects in these busy seasons to minimize the overall construction impact. NPS’s response is that climate change is exacerbating geotechnical issues along the road corridor, and that it is important to get these maintenance projects done before catastrophic failures occur, which would then be even more expensive and disruptive to fix. The situation at Pretty Rocks buttresses their argument. Merrell argues that if we want to have a road, the current level of construction activity is likely to continue and even increase. It does seem NPS should complete some kind of programmatic NEPA compliance to address the egregious cumulative impacts of all the road projects.
The one longer-term project under contemplation is a revision of the 2003 Gravel Acquisition Plan (GAP). The GAP assumptions needed revisiting anyway, but the unexpected enormous demand from the Pretty Rocks slump has pushed forward the need for reevaluation. Sourcing gravel is a fraught issue for Denali whether it comes from inside or outside the park boundaries because of the industrial-scale mining and transportation required. There is no official decision to reopen GAP, but Merrell flagged it as an upcoming consideration.
NPS has a lot of concern about funding for the 2022 season. Many visitor services and resource management projects are funded with visitor fees collected in the prior season. While staff and program cutbacks last year stretched money collected in 2019 to cover minimal services for both 2020 and 2021, the fee coffers will be fairly empty for 2022. Since next year could easily see pent-up demand flood a larger-than-normal number of visitors to Alaska and Denali, a depleted staff could easily be overwhelmed. DCC will be looking at opportunities to lobby on behalf of increased appropriations from Congress to deal with the shortfall. Who knows, perhaps this circumstance could initiate a move back toward funding essential services and resource management out of the federal budget process rather than through user fees, as was standard before the Fee Demo program started in the mid-1990s.
Please let us know whether you have any questions. If we don’t have the answers, we can find out.