Skip to main content

The Parks Service and Alaska

Over the Horizon

Mountain landscape

Former Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus’s uncanny ability to look over the horizon and see how the future might unfold is one of the many hallmarks that make him such a unique figure not just on Idaho’s landscape, but the nation’s.  A reminder of this occurred recently in Alaska in a piece by writer Craig Medred. Craig was writing in the Alaska Dispatch about a trial in Fairbanks.

One of those cantankerous iconoclastic Alaskan outback figures is on trial for not following the rules and regulations within the boundaries of one of the National Parks created by the landmark – and Andrus led – Alaska lands set aside legislation. That legislation, among other things, doubled the size of the National Park system when President Carter signed it into law in the waning days of his administration in 1980.

Testimony during the trial revealed a classic, heavy handed over-reaction by the Park Service as literally a SWAT-team descended on the guy to arrest him and haul him off to jail.  The image of NPS police holding a shotgun to the head of the alleged criminal perpetrator said it all.

Medred had been one of a contingent of national and Alaskan reporters taking part in a tour I had put together at the behest of then-Interior Secretary Andrus during the summer of 1979. The tour was to showcase the many “crown jewels” in Alaska proposed for permanent protection.  The ten-day tour was designed to educate a national audience to what was at stake for all Americans in perpetuity in these unique public lands.

The tour was a smashing success with hundreds of articles and news clips appearing in major publications from the Los Angeles Times to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, from the Seattle P-I to the Boston Globe.  Alaska’s senior senator, crusty acerbic Ted Stevens of course charged Secretary Andrus with lobbying with public funds but there was little he could do but fume.

During the course of this tour in which plenty of time was allowed for reporters to spend time hiking and fishing as well as watching birds or, at a distance, Alaskan caribou and grizzly, the Secretary and Craig wandered off to do a little fly fishing.

Medred correctly recalled that while casting Andrus opined that one of the few reservations he had about the push to create these new additions to the nation’s protected lands was turning over some of the most scenic tracts to management by the National Park Service (visit website).  Andrus opined that it would be better for all if the lands were declared part of the wilderness system managed by the U.S. Forest Service (visit website).

His concern was legitimate and prescient as anyone visiting Alaska today knows.  The National Park Service, much as Andrus feared, has ham-handedly lost the trust and respect of many Alaskans living adjacent to the vast, protected tracts.  They are viewed as play grounds for the rich from the lower 48 who trek to Alaska during the two months of the year when the weather is nice, there’s almost 20 hours of daylight, and they can ride a tour bus or, fully clad in recent purchases from an Orvis Fly Shop descend upon streams to flail away in search of a trophy.

Alaskan newspapers document numerous instances over the years where the NPS over-manages and displays an amazing lack of tact and diplomacy to the point that many of its personnel live in isolation from their neighbors who make their contempt for these federal bureaucrats well known.

So how did Andrus come to know that this was something to be worried about?

Experience, pure and simple.  While governor in his first two terms he dealt with representatives of the Interior agency who were casting covetous eyes on the Sawtooths, the White Clouds and Hells Canyon in Idaho.  All of these areas were then being managed by the U.S. Forest Service.  Familiarizing himself with what one could and could not do in a national park, Andrus quickly concluded their management scheme would be way too restrictive for the tastes of adjacent Idaho landowners and those that love to hunt and fish in Idaho’s back-country.

He also intuitively understood that a designation as a National Park could quickly lead to an area being “loved to death” by an influx of folks who trek to the parks precisely because of their notoriety.

He quickly settled on the “national recreation area” designation as the preferred management approach. Such a scheme would keep the Forest Service in the lead as the land manager. The idea didn’t sit well with everyone, including the late Paul Fritz who then managed the only piece of Park Service turf in Idaho, Craters of the Moon National Monument (learn more on the national parks website).

Over the years Andrus also watched as Forest Service personnel by and large did a good job of integrating themselves into the communities where they lived by working with their neighbors in a truly neighborly way.

Several times during his four terms as governor he would disappear for a few day horse-packing trip into some remote part of Idaho’s back-country with the supervisors of Idaho’s national forests and a few of their regional bosses out of Ogden and Missoula. He never took staff, nor did they.

It’s amazing how seemingly insoluble challenges can give way to possible solutions when sitting around a campfire at night in some remote corner of the proposed Mallard-Larkins wilderness area (view website), for example.

The key to effective management, I’m sure Andrus would say, reflects what he has always practiced – understand that public office is a public trust, know that a public servant is just that – a servant. The public is the boss. Listen because there is a collective wisdom to the public sense of propriety. Use common sense and never stop working to figure out the greatest good for the greatest number.

If Cece Andrus were still Secretary of the Interior I suspect there’d be man Park Service personnel being sent to charm school to learn the old lesson that a dab of honey usually goes much further than a bucket of vinegar.

(Chris Carlson directed the Department of the Interior’s Office of Public Affairs during the Carter Administration.)