Alaska State Park Faces Development Dilemma

Jonathan Haeber
National Geographic News
July 18, 2003

View a photo gallery of Alaska's Wood-Tikchik State Park by outdoor photographer Robert Glenn Ketchum. GO >>

The fishing in Alaska's Wood-Tikchik State Park is world-class. A 1.6-million-acre (647,500-hectare) wilderness in southwestern Alaska, it is home to all five species of native salmon. In September, the world's largest run of sockeye, or "red," salmon surge from the Pacific to spawn in the headwaters of the park's wild rivers.

On the Agulukpak River, more than 2,000 trout per mile (1.6 kilometers) crowd the waters at its peak. Catching fish here is easy. Reaching them isn't. The majority of the park can only be accessed by float plane, boat, or foot.

While that suits conservationists just fine, others—including Yup'ik Native American residents, who hold land development rights within the park—would like to see greater development to boost the local economy.

Opposing Sides

Since the Native Allotment Act of 1906—prior to Wood-Tikchik's designation as a state park—a number of Yup'ik residents claimed land along the Wood River system and the pristine lakes that surround it. (Boundaries of the Wood-Tikchik State Park would later circumscribe those land holdings.)

Each qualifying applicant was granted 160 acres (65 hectares). Today the total area of such landholdings within the park amounts to 8,000 acres (3,237 hectares). While the figure is small compared to the park's total 1.6 million acres (647,500 hectares), the land represents some of the park's most ecologically valuable, says Alaska-based writer Bill Sherwonit.

Lester Bingman, a pilot and outdoor guide, runs Fresh Water Adventures, a family-owned guide service based in Dillingham, a supply town in southwestern Alaska about 30 miles (50 kilometers) from Wood-Tikchik. Bingman says Native American landholders have become increasingly concerned about current and proposed development restrictions. He views the regulations as a good thing, but says that others wouldn't quite agree.

"I think there's some disappointment among the natives within the park." Bingman told National Geographic News. "The restrictions on their property are such that a limited capacity of the land can be commercial."

A number of Yup'ik want their land to be open to commercial developments such as lodges and guide services, which can provide jobs and income.

Robert Glenn Ketchum, an outdoor photographer and environmentalist based in Los Angeles, California, recently published a book on Wood-Tikchik (see photo gallery). Ketchum said he fears the impacts of increased development and visitation.

"Most of the other parks have become magnets, and that will eventually happen to Wood-Tikchik," he said. "It is developing as we speak."

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