By Clark Fair
Special to the Clarion
Alaska State Parks is 50 years old. But the path to its golden anniversary has not been simple. Like the beginnings of most things of value — including the genesis of its first park, in Kachemak Bay — the origin of the state’s park system is anything but straightforward.
The story is the result of many dreamers dreaming big: There was the young New York native, fresh from a stint with the Navy during World War II, who built his first home in a secluded paradise on the south side of Kachemak Bay and then sought to protect the land from rampant development. There was the world-famous aviator whose 1968 speech to the Alaska Legislature helped propel Alaska toward a state-managed park system. And there was the former Iowa pig farmer who became a key administrator in the state’s fledgling park system, and who credited an obscure, pre-statehood federal law for setting the stage for the Alaska’s parks.
These individuals and their disparate storylines — plus many, many more — converged to create the 3-million acre system that Alaskans treasure today.
When Clem Tillion, the nine-term member of the Alaska Legislature who has been called “the father of Kachemak Bay State Park,” bought a homestead in Halibut Cove in 1948, it was not the quietly thriving community it is today. In fact, the former herring-fishery hotspot was only a few years removed from “ghost town” status. Still, it was tranquil and beautiful, and there Tillion built a home in which he and his family would live for more than 70 years.
Eventually, development infiltrated the sparsely settled south side of the bay. Tillion, a Republican, was not against development per se, but when discussions arose concerning large-scale logging operations, he assumed a defensive posture.
In 1963 Tillion had joined the State House, and in early 1970 he and Sen. Bob Palmer (R-Ninilchik) introduced legislation to set aside nearly 300,000 acres — a northern section called Kachemak Bay State Park and a southern section called Kachemak Bay State Wilderness Park. In “Recollections from the People Who Shaped Alaska’s State Park System,” by Melissa DeVaughn, Tillion, who hand-drew the proposed park boundaries, recalled, “I picked out all the places that people shouldn’t live and put them in the park. Anything with a harbor I left out, so there could be development.”
On May 9, 1970, the Alaska Legislature established Kachemak Bay State Park, but only the 103,387-acre northern section. The roughly 200,000-acre wilderness portion of the park was established with new legislation in May 1972, and another 68,500 acres were added years later, bringing the total size of the park today to about 371,000 acres.
The state’s first scenic park followed quickly by the establishment of two others — Chugach State Park on Aug. 6, 1970, and Denali State Park on Sept. 21, 1970. Thus, in just five months of that year, the state’s park system grew by a staggering 913,000 acres.
Also during 1970, the governor was granted the authority to establish Chilkat State Park near Haines, but that authority was not acted upon until 1976. Then, in 1978, just north of Dillingham, the Legislature established 1.6-million-acre Wood-Tikchik State Park, the largest state park in the nation.
Before the emergence of scenic parks, Alaska was deeply divided between those who wanted to protect or preserve Alaska’s wild lands and those who wanted to develop as much of it as possible. Into this climate stepped Charles Lindbergh, the first pilot to fly solo over the Atlantic Ocean and also an ardent conservationist. Lindbergh had agreed to speak on March 19, 1968, to the full Alaska Legislature about protecting Alaska’s lands.
“Alaska is one of the key areas of the world, as regards conservation,” Lindbergh said, “so what you do here is going to be watched very closely by the entire world. … There is nothing we can do anywhere in the world that is more important than to protect our natural environment.”
While a handful of legislators did walk out on Lindbergh, those who remained for the full address gave him a standing ovation.
Buoyed by Lindbergh’s oratory, the Alaska Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Upper Cook Inlet Chapter of the Alaska Conservation Society took action. Four park proposals — for Chugach, Kachemak Bay, Wood River-Tikchik Lakes and Keystone Canyon (near Valdez) — were assembled and presented at a legislative dinner in January 1970. The momentum and the timing were right, and by autumn Alaska had its first three parks.
On Oct. 1, 1970, one month after the establishment of Denali State Park, Alaska’s commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources established within his department a Division of Parks — an entity separate from the Division of Lands — and named Ted Smith as the division’s first director. Six months later, the new division gained its first three park rangers.
In 1974, Dick Alman, who became the first chief of operations for the Alaska Division of Parks about the same time Ted Smith became its first director, sat down to write the history of Alaska’s park system. For its genesis he harkened back to the years just before statehood, to an obscure piece of 1956 federal legislation.
Alman asserted that when the U.S. Congress passed Public Law 507 — intended to create campgrounds and recreation sites for the then-Territory of Alaska — it became “the seed from which has grown the Division of Parks.” After Public Law 507 was passed, the Bureau of Land Management began selecting sites and installing parking pads, picnic tables, fire pits and outhouses at intervals along Alaska’s newly paved main road system.
The Alaska State Constitution allowed for further selection of “sites, objects and areas of natural beauty or of historic, cultural, recreational or scientific value.” Statehood also imbued Alaskans with more control over their lands. On July 1, 1959, BLM transferred management of more than three dozen road-accessible recreational sites, campgrounds and waysides—plus some operating funds — to the state DNR. By the end of 1960, the fledgling park system was comprised of nearly 60 such sites.
In 1966, the Nancy Lake State Recreation Area became the first “legislatively designated area” in the park system. It was followed in 1967 by the Chena River SRA. More expansion, and some contraction, followed, and by the summer of 1968 the state park system consisted of four state recreation areas, 41 waysides and four historic sites, totaling 53,341 acres.
Lindbergh’s speech and the establishment of the first three scenic parks occurred shortly thereafter.
Today, Alaska State Parks consists of more than 155 units, including eight scenic parks, and approximately 3 million acres. Chugach State Park itself draws more than a million visitors a year, and many of the objections to wilderness preservation have disappeared.
Back in 1970, when the merits of establishing Kachemak Bay State Park were being debated in the State House, Rep. Bill Ray (D-Juneau) objected to the proposed park because, he said, its location was “off the beaten track” in a depressed area of the state. He called the Kachemak bill a “dirty, rotten land swindle.” Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and Alaskans now benefit from what Neil Johannsen, the longest-serving director of Alaska State Parks, often referred to as “a system of dreams.”
By Clark Fair
Special to the Clarion