National Park Service quietly buys private parcel in Denali

Posted: Sunday, June 16, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The National Park Service has quietly purchased one of the most contested private parcels within Denali National Park and Preserve.

The 18-acre acquisition, known as Spruce Creek, is in the heart of Denali amid the rolling Kantishna Hills, a historic mining district. It was slated to become the site of a new road and lodge.

But for $1.8 million, the area became part of the national park in February. Now the land will remain unchanged. Two private, noncommercial cabins on one-acre lots will be retained by landowners.

People opposed to significant new tourism development inside Denali say the federal agency made the right move to buy the land. They believe the sale ended a threat to the untouched scenery and abundant wildlife.

But those opposed to the sale say park officials missed a unique opportunity to allow private landowners to build new lodges or other visitor attractions within Denali's well-traveled spaces.

The acquisition is one of many made through a special program, and one of the last. For more than a decade, the Park Service has exercised an aggressive strategy of snatching up inholdings, which are private parcels within parkland. Those deals were geared to minimize growth, and the program is mostly complete.

''We have now purchased most of the properties at Kantishna,'' said Chuck Gilbert, chief of the lands division for the Park Service in Alaska.

Gene Desjarlais, one of the owners of the Spruce Creek property, said he and his partner chose to sell their land because building on it had become too controversial.

Ray Kreig, chairman of the Kantishna Inholders Association and one of the few remaining parkland owners, said he wishes more private areas inside Denali could have been developed.

Alex Gimarc, an Anchorage resident and an advocate for handicapped access to public land, agrees. He thinks access for him and his 16-year-old son, who has cerebral palsy, would have been easier with more upbuilding on private land.

''If we can't drive there, we can't get there,'' Gimarc said.

Kreig said he wished several tasteful lodges had been added at Kantishna. He said the projects would have lowered the cost of staying there by creating competition.

With just four small lodges in that area now, few people can afford the $200 to $300 nightly rates, Kreig said. Some visitors choose to camp or backpack within Denali, but most ride the bus in for the day and then stay on the outskirts.

''I would contend that's unfair,'' Kreig said of the limited accommodations. ''You shouldn't have to be rich to visit a park that your taxes have paid for all your working life.''

Chip Dennerlein, former director of the National Parks and Conservation Association, argues that purchasing land in Kantishna was the right thing to do.

When Congress expanded Denali National Park in 1980, adding the old mining district in the north and more lands in the south, lawmakers meant for the wilderness to retain its character, Dennerlein said.

If the park had not bought private lands inside its boundaries, including Spruce Creek, the Kantishna area likely would have become a network of lodges connected by spur roads. Then the lodges -- not the scenery and the wildlife -- would end up being the main attraction, he said.

More tourism growth in the area also would have disrupted wildlife habitat and put more pressure on the park's already crowded main road, possibly pushing out other tourists, Dennerlein said.

''Spruce Creek was not just another lodge in Kantishna,'' he said. ''It would have opened up development in a whole new area. This was about sprawl and leapfrog commercial development.''



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