Alaska State Park Faces Development Dilemma

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As interest groups wrestle to define the ultimate vision for Wood-Tikchik State Park, the tourism in the surrounding area has steadily grown. The Chamber of Commerce of Dillingham, the nearest hub, reports rapidly rising land values. Local business owners say that development is inevitable. Though they welcome growth, they also accept the regulations, provided such regulations don't hamper the local economy.

Bingman, the Dillingham pilot and guide, says that the biggest recent restriction was on outboard motors for Chikuminuk Lake. He is optimistic about the change.

"I think it will open up new opportunities," he said. "It's going to make that particular place more desirable."

National Park Candidate

Forty years ago, a National Park Service team surveyed the wilderness of Wood-Tikchik and deemed it to be of "national import." But the land was never designated a national park. Alaskan officials added the wilderness to its state park system in 1978. It remained unstaffed until 1984, when Hourihan took the reigns.

Since then, Hourihan has worked from a Quonset hut in Dillingham as the "lone ranger" of southwestern Alaska's salmon center.

A large part of his time is spent with nonprofit conservation organizations on land trusts. (The legal compacts limit development rights on a parcel of land for perpetuity and are a favored conservation tool of nonprofit land conservation organizations.)

Conservation groups buy private parcels of land poised for development and help manage the land or re-sell it to the government. So far, the trusts have succeeded in their goal of protecting Wood-Tikchik's most ecologically important plots from sale to land speculators.

Conservation advocates like Bill Sherwonit, an environmental writer from Anchorage, Alaska, says that real estate development is one of the biggest impacts facing Wood-Tikchik. When land is divided up into smaller parcels and lots, Sherwonit says, it threatens the park's integrity.

Uncertain Future

Ketchum, the Los Angeles-based photographer, says his primary objective, and that of like-minded environmentalists, is to prevent development in the park by acquiring allotted land through land trusts. "It will keep the land more intact. The park will remain more pristine," he said.

Spearheading efforts to stop further development in the park are the land trust organizations. From the local Nushagak-Mulchatna Wood-Tikchik Land Trust to the national nonprofit Conservation Fund, various groups are buying up allotted Native American land or development rights.

In an October 2002 report on Wood-Tikchik, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources recommends such action, since it satisfies both sides of Wood-Tikchik's interests—environmental and economic.

Though the acquired land should be regulated, use should not be restricted, says Ketchum.

"There is a sort of desire to preserve the park in some absolute pristine biological state…but conservation is a whole other thing," he said. "[It] suggests intelligent use of the resources. I can see the park supporting visitation, recreational use, and hunting. All can be sustainable without diminishing species."

With pro-development allies in the Alaska state house and Washington, Ketchum says he fears the worst for Wood-Tikchik.

The park's rivers flow into the Bristol Bay, north of the Aleutian Island chain—a proven exploitable oil resource. Some environmentalists say that development of the first oil-drilling operations in Bristol Bay would wreak havoc on the park's salmon.

Others, like Dillingham guide Bingman, disagree. "They've been navigating with those [oil] ships since I was a kid, and I haven't seen any problems or accidents with them," he said. "I don't think drilling itself will have any effect on commercial fishing at all."

For now, Wood-Tikchik continues its yearly cycle of death and birth. Trout will continue to feed on salmon fry; moose will battle during rut season; forests will erupt in a volcanic splendor of color late every fall. For now, the land belongs to the bear and moose—and the water to the fish.

Editor's Note: Wood-Tikchik: Alaska's Largest State Park, featuring 60 color images by Robert Glenn Ketchum, is published by Aperture Books (see link below).

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