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Reading the Fine Print – Did the NPS Ever Manage This National Monument?

Misty Fjords scene

A sunny summer day at Misty Fjords. Jim Burnett photo.

The political and legal process required to create a new unit for the national park system can be long and complicated. In some cases, it's almost as difficult figuring out later exactly what happened in that process!

That's the situation for a large national monument that's sometimes described as "another Yosemite." The area was initially established on December 1, 1978, and the question of the day is …was it ever part of the national park system?

An official list of national park "birthdays" includes the following entry: "December 1, 1978 — Misty Fjords National Monument Alaska. (Later transferred to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)." The jury is still out on whether this is an obscure fact or a typo, because a separate list of NPS anniversary dates doesn't mention Misty Fjords. My research confirms that the question is complex enough to forgive a minor oops by the NPS birthday "listmaster," if that proves to be the case.

Jimmy Carter's Presidential Proclamation that created Misty Fjords provides an eloquent description of the area's resources, but is silent on the question of which agency would administer the site. A NPS history of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act notes:

On December 1, 1978, President Jimmy Carter, in the most sweeping application of the Antiquities Act in history, designated seventeen national monuments in Alaska that totaled approximately 56,000,000 acres. Two areas—Becharof (1,200,000 acres) and Yukon Flats (10,600,000 acres)—would be managed by the FWS, while the Forest Service would manage Misty Fjords (2,200,000 acres) and Admiralty Island (1,100,000 acres). The 41,000,000 acres to be managed by the NPS would nearly triple the size of the National Park System. [Emphasis is mine.]

The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 provided legislative follow-up of President Carter's presidential proclamation. That same NPS history notes that under this act,

The Forest Service would manage two national monuments—Admiralty Island and Misty Fjords, as well as additions to Chugach and Tongass national forests.

Early history of the area notwithstanding, there's no question that the monument is now administered by the U.S. Forest Service.

My brief visit to the area in 2007 confirms that the area is definitely worthy of status as a national monument or a national park. Some have called Misty Fjords "the Yosemite of the North" for its similar geology and superlative scenery. Walls of glacier-carved valleys soar 2,000 to 3,000 feet above sea level. Some of those valleys also drop 1,000 feet beneath the surface of the sea, creating the fjords that give the area part of its name.

The "misty" part of the area's name provides a good clue to the climate, and the monument contains extensive areas of coastal temperate rain forest and old-growth timber stands. Summer weather can be delightful at times— my trip in late May featured clear blue skies and pleasant temperatures.

Misty Fjords National Monument has a vast array of wildlife. There are populations of mountain goat, brown bear, black bear, moose, marten, wolf, wolverine, and river otter. Sea lions, harbor seal, killer whales, and Dall's porpoises use the saltwater bays and passages in the area. The area is a major producer of coho, sockeye, pink, chum and king salmon.

The National Monument covers 2,285,000 acres, and most (2,142,243 acres) are designated as wilderness. The area is accessible by floatplane and boat, and most visits originate from the nearby town of Ketchikan or from Juneau, Alaska. Misty Fjords is about 680 air miles north of Seattle.


TO: Jim, and others interested in whether or not National Monuments should only be operated by the NPS, and fans of Misty Fjords:

From the beginning of the creation by President Carter, it was planned that this area be managed by the US Forest Service. It was never managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, nor, the National Park Service.

The background is, there WAS a fight inside the Carter Administration on the designation of Misty Fjords, but it happened several years BEFORE the Presidential Proclamation on the Nat Monument (NM). By the time the Misty Fjords NM was proclaimed by Pres Jimmy Carter, there was no serious consideration of national park service management.

Officially starting in 1971, five federal agencies were looking all over Alaska for the creation of conservation units. The original focus was on undesignated public (federal) land, managed by the Bureau of Land Management. One of the agencies was the US Forest Service, who ultimately identified large areas in interior Alaska (by which I mean the huge block of Alaska, but excluding the Aleutian Pen. and Southeast Alaska). The Forest Service recommendations in Interior Alaska were in conflict with proposals made by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and by the National Park Service, each of whom advocated for parks or refuges where the Forest Service proposed extensive National Forests. Forests may permit commodity development via its multiple use legislation, including timbering and mining, but also has very tight wilderness management where designated.

Soon after the Forest Service floated this proposal, the NPS planning team, under Al Henson in Alaska and Randy Jones in Washington, began pushing for two national parks in Southeast Alaska, within lands ALREADY MANAGED BY THE FOREST SERVICE, in Mysty Fjords and in Admiralty Island. Back to the 1930s, the NPS had conducted recons of these places, but the Forest Service was livid, because the idea of the study in the 1970's was to be focused only on the large tracts of lands managed by the BLM as undesignated public land. Some Alaskan Indian groups in the Southeast also were raising challenges to the Forest Service and in favor of the NPS because of dissatisfaction toward the development plans and lack of 'subsistence priority' in the Tongass National Forest.

The real clash, and ultimately the basis for how the National Monument decision was made AND how the lands are currently managed, came as the Carter Administration struggled over how much land to conserve, what parcels, and what restrictions or special management should apply to the new conservation designations in Alaska.

The main opponents to the Department of Interior proposals by Secretary Cecil Andrus (especially the national parks and wildlife refuges) were the Department of Defense -- DOD wanted aids to navigation and ability to conduct maneuvers, the Commerce Department, who complained about locking up economic development opportunities, and the Department of Agriculture -- the department that manages the Forests and supposedly advocates for the National Forest recommendations. Amid all this, the simple decision was to cut the baby in half: there would be no new national forests in Interior Alaska (on lands already managed by the Dept of Interior), and the National Park Service would back off of pushing for a Misty Fjords or Admiralty Island national parks (on lands already managed by Dept of Ag/Forest Service). The concern about the development would be addressed by wilderness proposals to Congress, to protect Misty and Admiralty from development under the USFS' multiple use policies.

In effect, the Forest Service adopted wilderness recommendations to protect Misty and Admiralty from the National Park Service.

And, it is the nature of government to find a way to stabilize the political situation as Carter and Andrus prepared to face Congress with the most sweeping, most controversial conservation action in the history of the United States.

Leaving the Forest Service in place is consistent with that, and 'Wilderness' designation was the tool for both the Forests and the Refuges to block development, rather than converting those areas into parks.

When the time came to create the National Monuments -- the study-area protections in place from development since 1971 would come off in 1978, and Senator Gravel blocked the simple extension of those protections -- President Carter and Secretary Andrus saw the National Monuments as the only way to provide solid protection, but also were forcing Alaska back to the legislative table to win back all the special exceptions for Alaska that legislation would bring. They expected and wanted a new bill in the following Congress to erase the Carter Monuments, to be sought by all parties including Sen. Stevens and Rep. Don Young. They expected the Carter Monuments were too inflexible to be livable to Alaskans, and they believed the National Park Service and Wildlife Refuges NEEDED congressional legislation to be finally accepted by Congress and ALL the parties, or else effective mangement would be impossibly difficult for the ranger-on-the-Ground.

Because of the earlier deal, in 1977, on what agency would be the lead on what areas, what agency had developed the expertise for what area, and because of the outstanding quality of the lands designated by Carter as National Monument, and to provide political continuity and maximum leverage, the decision was made to break with tradition and permit the Fish and Wildlife Service and the US Forest Service to manage those national monuments that would have been managed by those Agencies if the Carter/Jackson/Udall bill had passed in 1978.

POSTSCRIPT: The Carter/Andrus strategy was to get a quick agreement with Sen. Stevens and the Governor, based on the bills that had been emerging up until that point. However, the environmental organizations decided to use the leverage Carter created to either kick up to much stronger bills, including much larger Wilderness in Southeast Alaska, and claimed they would be happy PERMANENTLY with the comparatively inflexible management of the Carter National Monuments. (the only significant exception for Alaska was access for subsistence hunting and fishing on all the national monuments). This tactic led to Rep. Udall being defeated in his own Committee and loosing the Commerce Committee (refuges) as well. MANY Members of Congress were turned off at how cynical the environmentalists had become, to push for more just because Carter's monuments put pressure on Alaskans. (they even tried to take over management of eagles on State-owned land in the Southeast) But Udall ultimately won on the House Floor due in part by a tremendous effort by Andrus and Carter to go political on what had until then been lobbied pretty much on the merits alone.

By the time it was over, the strongly environmentalist Senator Paul Tsongas, leader of the pro-environmental bill in the Senate, said he could even trust the word of Senator Ted Stevens more than he could the environmentalists. By that time, in the Southeast, all talk of a national park for Misty Fjords was gone, and right until the end the fight was over how much land in the forest would be designated Wilderness.

When Carter was beaten in the 1980 election, the environmentalists finally folded, and Carter got his bill. Under Reagan, there was fear there would never be a better bill, and the monuments would never be fully supported. So, the idea that the environmentalists would settle for permanent national monuments was a bluff.

At the time of the Hostage Crisis in Iran, it seemed in both cases that President Carter would be denied getting his victories before the Election, when possibly they would have helped him defeat Ronald Reagan.


Thanks for the additional background on Misty Fjords and other areas in Alaska!

I didn't intend to suggest in the original article that only the NPS could manage national monuments, but to point out that there was a bit of confusion about the early days of Misty Fjords. Given the fact that the majority of Misty Fjords is designated wilderness, the area about as well protected as is possible today from major changes on the ground, no matter which agency manages the site.

Others who want more in-depth information on the political maneuvers surrounding the various Alaskan monuments will find one source in the "Administrative History -The National Park Service and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980"

One hint in President Carter's language about who is to manage can be found when you compare the subsistence provisions in Misty Fjords with a national park monument, such as Kobuk Valley.

-- In Kobuk Valley, President Carter says:

“The Secretary of the Interior shall promulgate such regulations as are appropriate, including regulation of the opportunity to engage in a subsistence lifestyle by local residents. The Secretary may close the national monument, or any portion thereof, to subsistence uses of a particular fish, wildlife or plant population if necessary for reasons of public safety, administration, or to ensure the natural stability or continued viability of such population.”

Because the land in the Kobuk Valley had been managed by BLM, but would be taken over by NPS, the President identifies the need for new regulations, promulgated by the Secretary of the INTERIOR.

-- In Misty Fjords, President Carter instead refers to the existing statutes, which of course are Forest Service laws, part of the Department of Agriculture:

“Hunting and fishing shall continue to be regulated, permitted and controlled in accord with the statutory authorities applicable to the monument area.”

The National Forest had no conflict with hunting, but, a national park monument would usually prohibit all forms of hunting. This was a very big deal at the time.

So, President Carter indicates here that existing Forest Service law and regulation would apply, with the difference that under the Antiquities Act/National Monument withdrawal and the parallel withdrawals by Secretary Andrus, all new mines, leases, homesteads and other private reservations were excluded from Misty Fjords.


Excellent analysis.

There's no doubt in the The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 that the USFS would manage Misty Fjords. This article was forwarded to another forum, and a couple of NPS veterans on that board pointed out that Misty Fjords was carved out of the huge Tongas National Forest, and there was no way the Forest Service was going to give up that territory to the NPS.

As stated earlier, the key is that this prime piece of Alaska was protected in a timely manner. Based on my very limited peek, it is a magnificent area.

Jim, Wilderness in Alaska does not mean the same thing as in the lower 48. In an Alaskan Wilderness some buildings are allowed such as cabins, and sea planes flying in the wilderness and landing on the lakes. Either to bring visitors to their trailheads or cabins or just as day trips from Ketchikan, which usually include a landing on one of the lakes. IN their 2006 monitoring report the FS concludes that the noise from overflights and just seeing all those planes landing and taking off seriously impedes the perception of solitude in the wilderness.


Good comment about wilderness in Alaska, and the impact of a lot of small aircraft.

All good points on wilderness. On the other hand, without the provision to land on skiis or floats, we probably would not have gotten nearly as much Wilderness in Alaska.

Plus, although perhaps NOT in Southeast Alaska, in Interior Alaska there is some strange connection between the small, single-engine airplane and the sense of what is wild in Alaska. I know it seems weird, but the mythos of wild country in Alaska is as much about airplanes as it is about sleddogs. There is a whole literature on this Alaskan romance of the small plane. Read Sheppard's "Flying North."

We also thought at the time that restricting flights to small, fixed wing aircraft would have minimal physical impact, due to landing on snow cover, or landing on lakes or rivers. We tried to make it clear that by definition aircraft could not be a subsistence means of access, but the ambiguity of the language, and especially the interpretation, of the law means that preverse interpretations of the law have seemed to allow ATVs and aircraft. But during the debate, the very powerful republican Senator Hansen, who had been trying to show some flexibility to the need of some money even in the subsistence economy, had finally had enough. He barked: I don't care: if it is by air, it is sport hunting, NOT SUBSISTENCE!

A series of weak leaders and strong pushes in the Reagan and the two Bush administrations have slowly confused an already complicated law.

I was moaning one day, years after the law was passed, about the way the Reagan-Bush people had twisted the Alaska lands act (ANILCA), to a very senior and very distinguished chief of staff to the Senate committee with jurisdiction. I said something infantile about how this law cannot handle the bad faith from the people implementing it. This guy looked at me like I was born yesterday and said: ALL laws are like that. ALL laws require good faith!"

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