Refuge Notebook: Wilderness through a refuge intern's eyes

Kneai National Wildlife Refuge photo As an intern at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, Mary Steinlicht is compiling and organizing historical documents to lay the foundation for a wilderness management plan.

From fighting a salmon on the Kenai to gawking at the breathtaking mountains, there is just something about Alaska. I’ve been returning for short visits since I first stepped off the plane in Anchorage at the ripe age of 14, looking to hit the salmon runs just right or launch the boat at the Tractor Factor to hook into halibut.


Now, nine years after my first Alaska experience, I got an opportunity that I absolutely refused to turn down. Despite my mother’s not-wanting-her-youngest-daughter-in-Alaska-alone attitude, I’m now a Wilderness intern for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Here for two months, I already know I will be looking for tickets back when I return to Minnesota later this month.

I graduated this past summer with a degree in Wilderness Management and Outdoor Recreational Planning, and a minor in GIS. I have come to know that Wilderness programs are few and far between today. This could either mean I was smart to be unique in my career choice, in hopes of being marketable, or a fool because it’s very rare and rather specific. Hey, hindsight is 20/20.

I grew up outdoors. I enjoy everything from hunting and fishing to pickup hockey games on the frozen lakes of Minnesota. If I ever have a choice between being inside or out, I will choose out every time, whatever the weather conditions. I chose to further my education because I wanted to ensure I wouldn’t be trapped in an office the rest of my life. I am very passionate about the outdoors and strongly believe in the conservation of our natural lands.

Before coming to Alaska for my internship, I thought I knew just about everything there was to know about Wilderness. After all, I did have to recite the Wilderness Act of 1964 verbatim for one of my classes. That makes me an expert, right? Wrong.

With few exceptions, the Wilderness Act of 1964 generally prohibits roads, and unless specifically necessary for management practices, prohibits commercial enterprise, motor vehicles, motorized equipment, motorboats, aircraft landings, mechanical transport, structures, and installations. In 1980, Congress recognized that Wilderness in Alaska must be managed differently than that in the Lower 48. The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) allowed snowmobile use, motorboats, and airplanes for traditional activities and travel to and from villages and home sites, and continued subsistence use.

Federal land management agencies use a process called Minimum Requirements Analysis to determine if an otherwise prohibited use is necessary within designated Wilderness. This analysis is particularly important in Alaska, where the ANILCA exception for motorized use must be balanced with the intent of the Wilderness Act.

Wilderness areas in the Lower 48 are places I know and love. In school, I fo cused mainly on the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). The BWCAW (or “b-dub”) is a unique area in northeastern Minnesota, stretching 200 miles or so along the Canadian border adjacent to the Quetico Provincial Park. Together, they form a wilderness of two million acres. Glaciers sculpted the BWCAW and left behind lakes and rivers interspersed with islands, rugged cliffs and sandy beaches.

Sound rather familiar? It should. The BWCAW and the local Swanson River and Swan Lake Canoe Trail Systems are two of a kind, the only nationally-recognized Wilderness canoe routes in the country. Both Minnesota and Alaska realized these areas are unique and that preservation was necessary. But there are differences in how they are managed that reflect both their legislative origins and the level of visitation.

The BWCAW has specific entry points for canoeing and hiking. Some of the outer lakes of the BWCAW allow motor boat entry, but most are designated for non-motor access and require a portage from the parking area to the landing. Permits are required to enter the BWCAW and overnight permits reserve for a specific entry day and entry point. Overnight camping and day-use motor permits are restricted by entry point to only allow so many reservations per calendar day. These regulations help reduce impacts to the environment, ensure everyone gets a camp site, and keep the solitude for the BWCAW.

The Swanson River/Swan Lake Wilderness is managed differently than other Wilderness in Alaska. These areas seem to follow the original Wilderness Act of 1964 more than ANILCA (although it is not as nearly as strict as the BWCAW, probably because it doesn’t see as much use). You are required to register at a kiosk before entering the systems and group size is limited to 15 people. Motorized watercraft or wheeled vehicles are not allowed, and aircraft may not land in any lake within the canoe routes.

Alaska Wilderness is my textbook definition of wild. The solitude and untrammeled lands that are here are in my mind, the exact thing that the Wilderness Act speaks of. The surrounding area holds vast adventures — in order to experience them all, and against my mother’s best wishes, I have decided that I must again, come back.

Mary Steinlicht is a wilderness intern at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. You can find more information about the refuge at or


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