Parks chief got his start as a mule skinner

Posted: Friday, November 21, 2003

ANCHORAGE The road that took Alaska's new state parks director from a ranch in Montana to the helm of the largest state-park system on the continent traces a long and winding track across the face of North America.

For 58-year-old Gary Morrison, the route wound south and west to Big Sur, Calif.; north to Washington and Oregon; east to Idaho, Montana and the Dakotas, then north again to Alaska before straying far east to the capital in Washington, D.C.

And to think it was a journey that all began at the front of a mule team.

While leading a mule train across Forest Service wild lands in the West in the late 1960s, Morrison decided he really didn't want to be the geologist he'd just spent three years at Montana State University studying to be.

His summer job as a mule skinner convinced him he liked Forest Service field work too much.

Looking for a job as a Forest Service geologist might have been an option, but supervisors in the agency advised that was a professional dead end. In the U.S. Forest Service of the 1970s, you either had a forestry degree or you were a nonentity.

So Morrison went back to school, this time to the University of Montana. He was one of the first students there to get involved in a new forestry program directed at recreational planning. Within a few years, courses to train foresters to manage forests for recreation not just logging would pop up all over the country.

Little could he guess that he would end up heading an Alaska agency that owed its birth in significant part to the opposition of logging.

The creation of Chugach State Park in the early 1970s, in large part to prevent logging, eventually led to the formation of a state park system that now covers 3.2 million acres more than twice as much land as the second largest park system.

California holds that honor with 1.4 million; it also has a $150 million budget and hundreds of employees.

California's budgetary problems soon could lead to a 10 percent cut in that budget, with about 125 employees laid off. That 10 percent is about three times the budget of Alaska state parks. Morrison staff now amounts to a mere 34 full-time employees helped by 46 seasonals.

It is a staff that does a lot with a little. Where nationally state park staffing averages one person for every 622 acres, Alaska staffing is one for every 95,000 acres. Where nationally state parks average one employee for every 36,679 visitors, Alaska has one full-time staffer for every 120,588 visitors.

But then Alaska has a lot of wilderness park, whereas most other states have developed park.

Morrison is in a unique position to oversee these wilderness lands. He got to surf the wave of the American wilderness movement when it was just starting to break. He was carried by that wave into the Alpine Lakes region of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie and Wenatchee national forests in Washington in the 1970s. It was there, in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area, that Morrison helped write the first plans for how the Forest Service would administer wild lands.

Planners then were pretty much making things up as they went along, Morrison confessed in a recent interview, but the schemes for wilderness management they developed still became a model for administering future wilderness areas.

Over the years that followed Alpine Lakes, Morrison would steadily move up through the Forest Service, only to find himself in a struggle between a bureaucratic career ladder that invariably pointed indoors and a personal desire to stay outdoors.

By the start of the 1980s, he was in an office in Juneau working on implementation of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act and looking for a way to get back into the field. He found that when the job opened up in Sitka for a forest supervisor for the Chatham Area of the 16 million-acre Tongass National Forest.

Alaska, without a doubt, has the greatest state park system in the world, Morrison said.

It may also be one of the most challenged, he said.

''We've got one-third of the land mass of all the state parks in the country,'' Morrison said, ''and the third lowest budget of any state park system in the nation.''

Figuring out how to manage millions of acres of park land on what amounts to pocket change won't be easy, but Morrison has some ideas on how to hold costs steady while increasing revenues.

''We're going to slightly increase fees,'' he said. ''Increased fees mean increased revenues. We're going to start trying to work with the tourism industry to get some help. Princess (Tours) is good at Denali State Park helping fund the ranger there.''

After years in the Forest Service's bureaucratic maze, he relishes his new role at the head of an organization with a small staff and less demands for paperwork. That leaves time to get things done. He has spent too many years, he said, watching good ideas for recreation bog down in the planning process.

Morrison thinks a leaner, meaner organization like Alaska State Parks and Outdoor Recreation might be able to sidestep some of the road blocks that stymie federal agencies in this way.

''We can get things done,'' he said. ''It's a lot easier for us to get things done.''

Craig Medred is the Outdoors editor at the Anchorage Daily News.

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