How they came to be

by Jonathan B. Jarvis & T. Destry Jarvis

The following excerpts from National Parks Forever: Fifty Years of Fighting and a Case for Independence (2022, University of Chicago Press), by Jonathan B. Jarvis and T. Destry Jarvis, are shared with permission. They are taken from chapter 2, “Alaska: Doing it Right the First Time.” Jonathan Jarvis was director of the National Park Service from 2009-2017. His brother, Destry, has worked in lands conservation for decades.

While traveling thirty miles to another creek or valley in Virginia was an adventure, we vicariously visited wild country through the writings of Zane Grey, Sigurd Olson, and Wallace Stegner. We traveled west with Ward Bond on “Wagon Train” and experienced nature up close with Walt Disney. But Alaska called to us as the ultimate adventure. Little did we know that, one day, we would have the opportunity to not only experience but influence the protection of the wildest place left in the United States. 

Mountains reflect in a stream that drains out of the Arrigetch Peaks in Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve.
Patrick J. Endres, alaskaphotographics.com

An early and short-sighted mistake made by Congresses and administrations regarding new parks was that most unit boundaries were set in law along straight section lines. This began with Yellowstone, whose western boundary can be clearly seen from satellites that show US Forest Service clear-cuts right up to the line. As the NPS and its conservation constituencies began to consider new parks in Alaska, a new approach to park boundaries was widely agreed upon: that is, boundaries would be drawn on geographic features to incorporate whole ecosystems and watersheds as an expression of ecological consciousness and improved wildlife management. Thus, “doing it right the first time” became the mantra for new Alaskan parks and refuges, enabling agencies to avoid going back to Congress for multiple boundary changes in future years. 

Alaska—Seward’s Folly, as it was called when it was bought from Russia in 1867—then encompassed 375 million acres, virtually all federal lands, including the most pristine wild landscapes in North America. At the time that Alaska was granted statehood by an act of Congress in 1959, the new state was entitled to select 100 million acres of these federal lands for its own. 

Brown bear walks along the pumice shore of Naknek lake, Kejulik mountains in the distance, Katmai National Park, southwest, Alaska. Photo by Patrick J. Endres www.alaskaphotographics.com

In January 1965 NPS Director George Hartzog appointed an internal NPS Alaska Task Force to prepare maps and recommendations for future parks to be taken from the land remaining with the federal government. The report, Operation Great Land, finalized in 1969, proposed 76 million acres of new parkland in Alaska…


…When the new Congress convened in early 1979, all sides wanted to get an Alaska Lands Act passed, just not the same bill. The Carter administration, the Alaska Coalition, and House Committee Chairs Udall and Seiberling along with Senate coalition champion Paul Tsongas (among many other members) were aligned on one side, while the governor of Alaska, the three-member Alaska congressional delegation, and major energy, mining, and timber companies, among others, were aligned on the other. At that point, Alaska’s governor appointed an industry-funded group, Citizens for the Management of Alaska Lands (CMAL), to carry on the lobbying campaign in Congress to stop HR 39 or to substitute a multiple-use bill.

During this time, I joined the coalition’s lobbying team for regular, often daily, meetings with senior administration and congressional leaders, including Secretary Andrus, Chair Seiberling, and Senator Tsongas, to plan strategy and discuss potential amendments. 

A barred owl in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. Courtesy of NPS

On January 15, 1979, House Committee Chair Udall quickly introduced a new version of HR 39. It now included subsistence provisions that brought active Native Alaskan support to the bill, because the Natives were guaranteed rights to continue traditional hunting, trapping, and fishing in these new conservation areas. However, a huge lobbying effort by the state, the oil and gas industry, and the National Rifle Association resulted in HR 39 losing in committee by one vote. Undeterred, with a cranked-up coalition grassroots lobbying campaign that especially sought Republican support, Udall and Republican John Anderson (IL) introduced a substitute amendment on the floor of the House, which passed 268-157. The May 16, 1979, vote on final House passage of HR 39 was an overwhelming 360-65. 

Throughout 1979 and into early 1980, direct lobbying in the Senate by coalition members, including myself, and often accompanied by influential board members from the coalition organizations, intensified in an effort to sway votes. One of my most memorable lobby days was escorting an NPCA board member, Mrs. W.L. Lyons (Sally) Brown, to see her home state senator, Wendell Ford (D-KY), a member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where markup on the bill was occurring. Senator Ford was hesitant to support the coalition’s strengthening amendments, preferring Chair Scoop Jackson’s middle-ground compromises. At one point in the tense meeting, Sally shook her finger in the senator’s face and said, “My family controls one-fifth of the economy of Kentucky, and you will do what I say . . .” Senator Ford thereafter supported most of the coalition’s amendments, though we still did not have enough votes to prevail in the committee on the final vote to report the bill. 

A mountain goat in Kenai Fjords National Park. Courtesy of NPS

Chair Jackson, in a highly unusual move, allowed Alaska Senator Stevens to fully participate in committee hearings. Stevens questioned witnesses, took part in debates and more than a dozen multihour committee markup sessions, and offered his own amendments, even though he was not a member of that committee (he did not get to vote in committee). Largely as a consequence of these maneuvers, committee action on the bill dragged on throughout 1979. Senate committee markup did not begin until early October 1979, and the committee reported its weak version of the bill on October 30 by a vote of 17-1, with Senator Tsongas, the coalition’s champion, casting the lone vote against. 

This committee bill would have taken 40 million acres of conservation lands out of the Alaska Lands Act. By early November, Tsongas, Senator William Roth (R-DE), and twelve cosponsors announced their intent to offer a far stronger conservation bill—one supported by the coalition—during the full Senate floor debate. Senator Gravel announced his intent to filibuster any bill. With no time remaining in the session, leadership pulled the bill from the floor and carried it over until Congress reconvened in early 1980. At that time, Senator Stevens announced that he had negotiated a five-month delay with Senate leadership before the Alaska Lands Act could be brought up on the floor, including an agreement that fourteen amendments could be offered, but only five by Tsongas, with nearly fifty hours of debate scheduled. This unusual maneuver threatened to delay final passage until after the fall election, pushing it into a lame duck session in which uncertainty is the rule. 

As a consequence, in February 1980 Secretary Andrus signed an order, using his administrative authority under section 204 of the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act, permanently withdrawing another 40 million acres from state selection or mineral entry. These were lands that HR 39 would have designated as national wildlife refuges, and Andrus’s action again pressured Congress to act on the bill. 

The terminus of the Kennicott Glacier. Courtesy Jacob W. Frank, NPS

When the bill finally came to the Senate floor in late July 1980, a series of test votes confirmed that the coalition had the votes to prevail. A weakening amendment lost by a vote of 66-30. Senators Jackson and Hatfield then offered a substitute bill, endorsed by Stevens and Gravel, which lost by a vote of 62-33. It was then clear that the coalition and its Senate allies likely had the votes to prevail on the whole bill. However, Stevens, a master of senate rules and procedures, announced his intent to offer eighteen secondary amendments. This tactic led Senate leadership to again pull the bill from the floor and direct committee leaders, including Tsongas and Stevens, to craft a compromise to the committee’s reported bill—one that could pass. 

That bill, known as the Tsongas-Jackson-Roth-Hatfield substitute, was brought back to the Senate floor on August 4. This version of the bill was nearly the same as HR 39 for NPS lands, though with more preserves, but deleted 26 million acres of wildlife refuge lands. At that point, Gravel again launched into a filibuster, causing endless delays. Senate leadership then filed a cloture petition to cut off debate. Thereafter, the substitute passed, and the Senate passed the full bill by a vote of 78-14. 

House leadership had not been consulted on the substitute compromise, but with the 96th Congress rapidly coming to an end, the election of Ronald Reagan as president, and the Senate majority shifting to Republicans, the House reluctantly accepted the Senate bill with no changes. It passed on November 12 and was sent to President Carter, who signed it at a White House ceremony, which I attended, on December 2, 1980, as the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), Public Law 96-487. 

Jonathan Jarvis in the mountains of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve off the McCarthy Road, with his son Ben. Courtesy Jonathan Jarvis


in October 1994, I was offered the position of Superintendent of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Before I accepted, I took leave, flew to Anchorage, and drove the 200-plus miles to Glennallen. In a weird coincidence, the one radio station I could hear in my rental vehicle was reporting on the discovery of Joe Vogler’s body, wrapped in a blue tarp and buried in a gravel pit near Fairbanks. The radio announcer was interviewing the ranger who had arrested Vogler in 1984, continuing the conspiracy theory that the NPS had been behind his disappearance in 1993. Investigators soon arrested and convicted his neighbor. As I drove along the lonely Glenn Highway, I noted that old wounds had not healed and I was heading right into one of the weeping sores of animosity. Some friends suggested I was moving further and further from civilization, but with support from Paula, I accepted the job, fulfilling a career goal of working in Alaska. 

Just before Thanksgiving of 1994, my family—Paula and our young two children, Ben and Leah—took the inland ferry up from Seattle and arrived at Skagway in a blinding snowstorm. We drove up the Alaska Highway with the daytime temperature of 30 degrees below zero and about three hours of daylight. We spent our second night in the small town of Tok, population 1,200, and the proprietor of the hotel apologized that she was storing her stuffed Alaska brown bear in our room. She hoped we would not mind. At first the kids enjoyed taking many pictures with the towering bear in the corner of our room but soon became creeped out. I covered it with a blanket but we still had a somewhat sleepless night. The next morning, as I folded up the electric cords I used to warm the engine block of our truck, the insulation on the wires cracked and fell off into the snow, leaving nothing but a bare copper wire. The owner rightly called me a “cheechako,” a Chinook word for newcomer and in Alaska the equivalent to “greenhorn.” We stopped for coffee before leaving Tok, which borders the park, and I was immediately recognized as a stranger. There are not many nonlocals in Tok in the winter, so as I was getting my coffee, the waitress quizzed me about why I would be traveling this road, this time of year. When I responded that I was the new park superintendent, a hush fell over the room full of locals. Although the overt threats had subsided over the last decade, there was still an underlying distrust and dislike of the NPS in Alaska. 

Dog mushing in Denali National Park and Preserve. Courtesy T. Rains, NPS

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is 13 million acres, roughly the size of West Virginia or, for an international comparison, Switzerland. When combined with the adjacent Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park and Kluane National Park in Canada and Glacier Bay National Park, the total 24 million acres makes it part of the largest terrestrial World Heritage site on the planet. Among its “outstanding universal values” are the largest nonpolar icefield in the world and high biodiversity in plant and animal communities. The population scattered among small towns, Native villages, and lone cabins is around 3,000. It is composed mostly of Native Alaskans, pipeline workers, and families who just want to live a simpler lifestyle. The town of Glennallen, population around 400, has one of the two high schools in the area, one gas station, a couple of restaurants, one hotel, a grocery/general store, a lumberyard/hardware store and a few shops that sell local crafts. It is 200 miles from there to Anchorage by road. It is also considered by many as the coldest place in Alaska, often dropping to 40 to 50 degrees below zero and staying that way for a month or more. An oft-repeated line is that there is “no bad weather in Alaska, only bad equipment,” though with all the winter hats, there is a lot of bad hair. 

We spent the first few months house-sitting or living in a hotel room because, according to the one real estate agent in the area, “all habitable structures were inhabited.” In the spring, we finally bought a house that was great by Alaska standards: it was insulated, had three sources of heat (since at least one will fail), and the water well was under the house so it did not freeze in winter. It also had indoor plumbing, which was a step up from many of the other homes in the area that still required a cold walk to the outhouse! It was walking distance to the school bus stop. And, surrounded by a forest of alder and spruce, it was a short walk to the amazing, wild Copper River. 

Wildflowers and hikers in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.
Courtesy Jacob W. Frank, NPS

The only downside was that the water out of our well was not drinkable, due to the local minerals, though it worked fine for showers and toilets. For drinking and cooking, we hauled water once every few weeks from an outdoor community well, which was always an adventure at 40 below zero when any spillage froze to your clothes instantly. Our two children started elementary school in Glennallen, which had a K-12 enrollment of about 300. Paula served as a substitute teacher, organized community service work with high school students, and helped run the park book store. About once a month, we drove the 200 miles to Anchorage to stock up on supplies and enjoy a night at a hotel with an indoor pool. We lived in the Copper Valley for five years, and it was an adventure: moose in our yard, skijoring with our dog, progressive dinners with park families, smoking salmon from the Copper River, challenging the school district to be better than it was, and just enjoying the rural, bush lifestyle. It was hard at times, but both kids made friends and look back on it with warm memories. 

Being the park superintendent was more complicated. In this small community, there was no anonymity for me, so I just accepted the fact that I represented the National Park Service, even when I was off duty. I did not hide and conducted my personal business locally as much as possible. My previous time as a park superintendent in rural Idaho at Craters of the Moon National Monument had helped crystallize my appreciation of a rural community. I also know that growing up with my brother in rural Virginia in a traditional hunting and fishing community had set in place an underlying respect for people who lived closer to nature. I knew that many have deep local knowledge and a love of the place. This was common ground where the community and I could come together. I also encouraged my NPS staff of about twenty-five to get engaged in the community: run for school board, volunteer for the fire department, coach sports, or even fix the school computers when they went down. I wanted the community to see us as people, and as contributors, rather than just nameless feds. When I had the opportunity to receive funding for the first visitor center for the park, I made sure it met the needs of the community as well as the park, that the architecture and style met the local vernacular, and that the community would always feel welcome to sit by the fireplace and talk with the staff. 

Living in a bush community did give me insights into a wide range of worldviews. The bush often attracts people who “just want to get away,” and I learned it was always a mistake to make assumptions about anyone there. The guy in the blood-stained Carhartt coveralls and the sourdough beard could easily have a doctorate from MIT. In the Copper River Valley, the first level of government was the state legislature and the only locally serving elected officials were the members of the school board. As a result, school board meetings were quite entertaining, as all forms of grievances would be aired well into the wee hours of the morning. In a particularly memorable meeting, I gained a sudden insight into the mind of a far-right conservative who had been recently elected to the board. After listening to near unanimous public testimony (I don’t remember the topic, only that the audience was unified in its opposition) for quite a while, the board member unleashed a lecture on the group. He said he did not care what we wanted or said, he was “elected to do what he wanted, not what the public wanted,” and if we wanted to do something different, we should run for office. After the meeting, I went up to him and thanked him for being so honestly undemocratic, as I had suspected this but never really heard anyone say it out loud. I then told him that my wife and I were going to work really hard to get someone other than him elected to the school board. 

Female grizzly bear in autumn blueberry patch, Denali National Park, Alaska
Patrick J. Endres, alaskaphotographics.com

It became pretty clear to me right away that “managing” a park that is 13 million acres, with just a handful of visitors (about 30,000 per year), was mostly about understanding the resources and working with the local community. The NPS staff scientists were studying the migration of caribou, trying to understand the park’s complex geology, and collecting archeological and historical information about human occupation. But for the most part, nature was “running wild” (what former Governor of Alaska Wally Hickel famously warned against). Letting nature do what it does was consistent with the NPS mission and a particularly relevant policy in Alaska. More than once, we pushed back on the State of Alaska Fish and Game, which preferred to manipulate nature by indiscriminately killing bears and wolves to “make” more caribou and moose for sport hunters. This conflict of policy between the state and the feds continues today.   

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