The History of Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

By Bill Sherwonit
Writer of Anchorage, Alaska; Author of several books about Alaska

The Seward, Alaska, Chamber of Commerce proudly proclaims this coastal town 125 miles south of Anchorage as "The Gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park," and locals are quick to sing the park's praises when conversation turns to the topic. In fact, the community of 4,000 now so fully embraces Kenai Fjords, it's hard to imagine that Seward's residents once stood united in angry opposition to the adjacent 607,000-acre wilderness park along the Kenai Peninsula's southern edge.

The turnabout in local attitudes, along with the national park's pivotal role in Seward's transition from a resource-extraction economy to one dependent on tourism, makes this one of the National Park Service's grand success stories.

Many of the people who today sing Kenai Fjords' praises the loudest were once among its staunchest opponents. Pam Oldow is one. In the 1970s, she and other members of the Seward City Council and Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly passed resolutions opposing the proposed park. But the 30 years in between have changed her perspective.

"Oh, it's a great thing, one of the best things that ever happened to Seward," Oldow says. When asked why she initially fought the park, she admits, "It's hard to say exactly why--I think more than anything, it was fear of the unknown, a fear that the park would somehow hurt Seward."

Darryl Schaefermeyer has no problem recalling the reasons for his opposition. A resident of Seward for more than 50 years, Schaefermeyer is a former city administrator who now manages the Alaska Sealife Center. But in the mid-1970s, while employed by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), he worked on a plan to establish a national recreation area near Seward, in part, to increase development opportunities; a park seemed far more restrictive. Like Alaskans around the state, Schaefermeyer worried that the Park Service would lock up local lands, cutting off access and halting economic opportunities.

"You have to understand," Schaefermeyer says, "Seward's economy was horrible in the '70s. We were still suffering from the economic damage of the '64 earthquake, unemployment was more than 30 percent in winter, and the town had a very small tax base. We were worried that a park would hurt the economy even more."

Bev Dunham, a Seward resident for 58 years and founding publisher of Seward's weekly newspaper, the Phoenix Log, adds that a long history of distrust contributed to local opposition. "A lot of the old-timers, including members of my own family, had been involved in mining," says Dunham. "Years before, the Forest Service had gone in and torn down or burned old mining cabins all over the Kenai Peninsula [within the Chugach National Forest]. People feared the Park Service would finish the job and destroy what was left of our mining heritage. So naturally there was a lot of resentment."

Two things changed local attitudes: The Park Service staff assigned to Kenai Fjords became the best of neighbors, and the park helped to establish a new, thriving industry that put Seward back on the map--tourism.

Oldow, Schaefermeyer, and others point to Dave Moore as the person responsible for turning local attitudes around. Kenai Fjords' first superintendent knew that many locals resented the new park.

Although Moore says the resistance was palpable, he chose to embrace his new community rather than be defensive. He and his family became active members of a local church, cheered on their sons at high school basketball games, and joined various community organizations. Moore was also wise enough to put the park's headquarters in town, recognizing that it would pull people into Seward. The park's small staff followed Moore's lead: They entered a float in Seward's Fourth of July parade, volunteered with local groups, and settled in as fully participating residents.

By 1974, Moore had earned the respect and admiration of the community, and the park's economic benefits to Seward were obvious. So when Moore asked a couple of local businessmen if the city might rescind its 1975 resolution opposing the park, the city council and borough assembly went even further: Members passed new resolutions welcoming Kenai Fjords and the Park Service to Seward.

The legacy begun by Moore was continued by Superintendent Anne Castellina, who arrived in Seward in January 1988 and remained for 16 years. Like Moore, Castellina quickly immersed herself in the community and encouraged her staff to do the same, and she too was embraced by the town. "Becoming part of things just seemed natural; I felt like I'd come home," she explains. "One of the things we [in the Park Service] haven't done so well is to recognize that while we're involved in managing a parkland, we're also part of a human community. We need to participate in that, too."

Admittedly, Castellina had the good fortune of inheriting a park without hot-button issues tied to subsistence and motorized access, a fact that smoothed the acceptance of park employees. It also helped that by the time Castellina arrived on the scene, the park had given Seward newfound status as Kenai Fjords' main gateway. And locals had learned firsthand that parks are big business. Still, the best was yet to come.

A New York Times article on the park and Seward sparked tourism growth, and aggressive state-funded marketing also drew increased attention to the area. So, in its own way, did the Exxon Valdez oil spill: Scores of workers saw the landscape's wild beauty while based in Seward, a key staging area for much of the spill clean-up. The numbers tell much of the story. In 1982, the first year that such statistics were kept, some 16,000 people visited Kenai Fjords. By 1986, Moore's last year, recreational visits had jumped to 54,000, and they pushed above 100,000 by 1991. Visitation continued its precipitous rise, to more than 200,000 in 1994 and 300,000 in 1997.

The numbers have dropped slightly since that peak year, but Kenai Fjords remains one of Alaska's most popular parklands. An even better measure of the park's growing influence on Seward's economy is the town's coastal wildlife tour industry. In the years before Kenai Fjords' creation, only Pam Oldow and her husband Don took wildlife watchers out on the ocean. Over the course of a season, they might haul a few hundred people in their small boat. Nowadays, the three companies that operate coastal tours and associated lodges do more than $10 million worth of business, taking some 70,000 passengers on cruises into the steep-walled fjords for which the park is named.

In 2001, a study conducted by the University of Alaska-Anchorage's Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) revealed that "most of the economic growth, particularly since 1990, [was] driven by the visitor industry" and "Kenai Fjords National Park is widely regarded as the primary magnet, along with recreational fishing, for most of this growth... The national park status has also elevated the profile of Seward as a visitor destination across the country and indeed the world."

No economic-impact statistics are available from the park's early years, but using the Park Service's own numbers, the ISER report estimates that park visitors spent about $6 million while visiting the Seward area in 1990. By 2001, the Park Service estimated total visitor spending had more than doubled to $15.7 million, with an additional $6 million in secondary benefits. From 1980 through the end of the '90s, Seward's visitor-related job growth—most of it tied to Kenai Fjords—averaged 5.9 percent annually, compared with only 2.1 percent for the rest of the economy.

Jim Stratton, regional director of NPCA's Alaska office, believes that Seward's economic success story can be a critical tool in promoting the importance of ensuring that national parks receive the staff and money they need.

"We need to get business and political leaders involved in our efforts to properly fund and maintain parks," Stratton says. "One way to get them engaged is to demonstrate the importance of parks to local economies. We can show it's worth the investment."

Today Kenai Fjords is the centrepiece of Seward's tourism industry, the key to its economic health. In 2004, Kenai Fjords issued 90 business permits to companies operating in the park, from air-taxi services to vehicle tours and backpacking, hiking, and kayaking guides. Meanwhile dozens of hotels, lodges, bed and breakfasts, restaurants, rental outfits, and gift shops outside the park attract people in search of a wilderness park experience. Even former nay-sayers now describe Kenai Fjords as Seward's primary economic engine and a valued part of the local community.

It is certainly no small achievement in a state where many residents continue to harbor resentment toward the Park Service, former President Jimmy Carter, and the landmark legislation Carter signed that so greatly expanded the nation's wilderness parklands—the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, or ANILCA, signed into law nearly a quarter-century ago.

"I admit it, my attitude has changed 180 degrees," Schaefermeyer says. "The park has been a marvellous success, and most people in Seward today would speak highly of having it here. Kenai Fjords has become the backbone of the economy and a source of pride. And its staff from the superintendents on down have been good neighbours, good friends."

Photo taken from Kenai Fjords National Park's photostream