Kenai Peninsula

A park system is born

Forty years later, Alaska State Parks looks back at its beginnings

by Melissa DeVaughn, for the Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation
dedication of Chugach State Park
The dedication of Chugach State Park took place on August 6, 1970. — Photo courtesy of Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation

Sharon Cissna remembers how outraged she was, when at the very inexperienced yet overly confident age of 25 she found out that a logging operation was planned for the Indian Valley, along Turnagain Arm, in an area she thought was beautiful. For years, Indian Valley had been a favourite among locals for hiking and exploring the back country. It had been part of Chugach National Forest, but the federal government had recently made it available to the state to select under the Statehood Act. 

The proposed logging project could put an end to the wilderness experience that Cissna and her hiking buddies enjoyed so much. All of that old-growth spruce would be in jeopardy. The clear-cutting of the area would ruin the natural landscape, she feared. 

Fortunately that naïve confidence made Cissna and her friends oblivious to the overwhelming odds stacked against them. They organized meetings that went late into the night, had impromptu conversations with important people and built consensus with everyone from city hydrologists to geologists to local politicians, creating a mountain of paperwork that they took to the legislature. 

Their goal: to create a park owned by the state that would protect the beauty and landscape surrounding Alaska’s largest population center. 

“I think if we were to try something like that today, it would have a very hard time passing (the legislature),” said Cissna, now a state representative for District 22, in Anchorage. “But those were the days when we made things happen without money. We saw that things needed to be done, and (we) just did them.”

That is exactly what happened. 

Joining forces

With help from a small cadre of supporters, including Pete Martin, Art Davidson, Mark Ganapole and legislators Lowell Thomas Jr., and Helen Beirne among others, the State agreed that the mountains surrounding Anchorage should be protected for generations to come. 

At about the same time, a movement similar to this was going on across the state. It was the late ’60s, a time when the phrase “power to the people” held some sway, when the population of the state was around 300,000 (less than half of today’s nearly 700,000), and when small groups of people truly believed they could—and did—accomplish big things. 

The time was ripe for change.

This movement had not been announced or formally advertised. It was not an organized effort, either. Rather, Cissna and her friends had taken the first steps toward establishing the Alaska State Park System though it would be years before they realized it. It had not begun with a specific vision or an organized effort, just a group of like-minded people; conservationists, biologists, adventurers and regular folks who liked the natural landscapes of their communities, who were beginning to realize that the newly minted state of Alaska’s biggest asset, indeed, was its geography. 

Here were thousands upon thousands of miles of land precariously waiting to be exploited by resource development, sold for private use and covered with houses, or otherwise disposed of by the federal government. Or maybe it would sit untouched. But with oil exploration on the horizon and a growing population, it was clear that the latter possibility seemed very remote.

“There was certainly a citizens’ movement but there were also some very interesting things happening at the time,” said Neil Johannsen, who is the longest serving director of the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation and held the position for nearly 13 years, from February 1983 to September 1995. “It was in 1969 that Charles Lindbergh gave a speech to the legislature and in that speech he urged them to protect the land.”

Some legislators even walked out on the meeting, Johannsen said.

A new emergence

Eventually though, the legislature saw the way, and in 1970, the Division of Parks came into being. This year, the Division celebrates 40 years of existence—40 years of growing, developing and fighting through the booms and busts of Alaska’s economy to provide outdoor recreation opportunities while conserving and preserving the natural, cultural and historical integrity of the lands. 

In that first year, 1970, three parks were established to form the state park system: Kachemak Bay, Denali and Chugach. They are our oldest, and perhaps most-loved and used parks in the state.

Today however, the state park system has grown to include 123 park “units,” ranging in size from the half-acre Potter Section House State Historic Site to the 1.6 million acre Wood-Tikchik State Park. Besides historic sites and state parks, the Alaska state park system also encompasses recreation areas, recreation sites, historic sites, historic parks, trails, marine parks, special management areas and preserves. Each is classified for a management purpose, and each—if you talk to the people instrumental in developing the areas—is critical to the state parks system as a whole.

In a 1988 presentation on the Alaska state park system by Johannsen, he placed the beginning of the parks movement at 1957—although a History of the Division of Parks document, written by R.K. Alman in December 1974, suggested the move began as early as 1956 with the passage of Public Law 507 by Congress. 

Regardless of the date, there was always an interest in preserving some lands for public recreation in Alaska. There was a park system in Alaska, albeit loosely organized, from the time it became a state. That system consisted of road-accessible recreation sites run by the Bureau of Land Management, but transferred to the new state’s Department of Natural Resources upon statehood. 

“On July 1, 1959, the BLM transferred 32 campgrounds with some operating funds to the new Alaska Department of Natural Resources,” Johannsen wrote. These locations, along with state recreation areas, would later become the basis for the Alaska state park system, he said, and many of them are still around today.

Enduring favourites

Johnson Lake State Recreation Area on the Kenai Peninsula, Big Lake North and Big Lake South state recreation sites in the Valley and Clearwater State Recreation Site near Delta Junction are just a few of the still-popular destinations that have endured. 

In fact, according to Chris Degernes, deputy director for the Division of Parks and Outdoors Recreation, if any State Park unit deserves a superlative as the first, it would not be one of the parks at all, rather it would be the Nancy Lake State Recreation Area, which was the first legislatively designated area of the state park system, established in 1966. The Chena River State Recreation Area came second, established by the legislature at the request of the Fairbanks Garden Club in 1967. 

While Alaska grew as a state and became more organized, the fledgling park system grew with it. In 1970, the Division of Parks was created within the Department of Natural Resources. This creation became the seed for the parks system that exists today. 

“In those years, Alaska was at a paradox of forces,” Johannsen said. “There were those who wanted it to stay wild and those who wanted to develop it.”

It was Kachemak Bay that earned its designation as a State Park first, when the state legislature, effective May 9, 1970, approved 105,387 acres as Kachemak Bay State Park. Two years later, the state legislature added nearly 200,000 acres, specifying it as a State Wilderness Park. By 1989, another 68,500 acres had been added into the mix. Today, it is at nearly 400,000 acres. 

“Locals in Homer just called it ‘Across the Bay,’ ” said Jeff Johnson, who would in 1984 become the park’s first ranger. “They didn’t call it Kachemak Bay State Park, they didn’t think of it as a park. It was just ‘across the bay.’ ”

Citizens with a mission

It was a citizens’ initiative that brought Kachemak Bay to reality, Johnson said. Like the Chugach, logging interests were threatening the land and people who lived nearby did not want to see the landscape scarred by such practices. 

Halibut Cove resident Clem Tillion—who lives there to this day—was a state senator in 1970 and was instrumental to the success of the initiative. 

“Clem was (key), and he really is the father of Kachemak Bay State Park,” agreed Johannsen. “He lived there and he wanted to protect the land from development. Without him, it would not have happened.”

From his home in Halibut Cove, Tillion, who will be 85 this year, said he still has the original plan that he drew by hand, outlining the park boundaries to Kachemak. 

“Kachemak was the recreation site requested by (the people of) Seldovia and Homer,” Tillion said. “I picked out all the places that people shouldn’t live and put them in the park. Anything with a harbour I left out, so there could be development.”

Tillion also preferred that the state be involved with protection of the land, rather than the federal government.

“Because I think we do need big parks but I don’t support anything run by the federal government,” he said. “I’m much like my forebears in that way.” 

Still, even after the park designation became official with the State, for a long time the titles seemed simply a formality. 

“We used to call them paper parks” Johnson said, because the parks had no staff and no facilities. “Human beings decided to set all this land aside for special purposes, but of course it was there and being enjoyed by people before it was ever a park.”

The real deal

It took nearly 15 years for the cash-strapped state parks system to get enough money to staff the then-300,000-acre park, and he calls it the best ranger job he ever had. 

“For a ranger, it was the real deal,” he said of his 10-year tenure there. He was based out of a cabin in Halibut Cove Lagoon that had formerly been an Alaska Department of Fish and Game hatchery and was transferred to the Division of Parks. There, Johnson and whatever crew of volunteers he could muster helped set trails, patrol the water and add just enough basic infrastructure to accommodate visitors, but not so much as to impact the character of the area. 

“We did a little bit of everything because so much needed to be done,” he said.

The new ranger station was hard to get to, primarily because of the tidal action affecting entrance to the lagoon. Their only means of communication was a low-band radio.

“It was broken half the time,” Johnson recalled. “We had a mile-long wire from the ranger station up to the radio transmitter, (which was) a 20-minute hike away. That line would break in 35 places each year. For the first couple of weeks every season, I’d be up there climbing trees having to patch it together so we could communicate.”

But, Johnson said, “It was a ranger’s dream come true, going to Alaska to be a park ranger and having the honour and thrill to have been among the first to be there as professionals. There aren’t that many people in the world who have that chance.”

As Kachemak Bay State Park became an official “paper” park, and work continued with Cissna and her group to protect the Chugach Mountains, another effort also was underway two hours north of Anchorage. 

Mount McKinley National Park was one of the most popular visitor destinations in the state; a trend that continues to this day. Run by the National Park Service, the park introduced national and international visitors to Alaska’s wilderness. When adjacent land became available under the Statehood Act, the National Park Service, according to Johannsen, was interested in adding to its acreage. 

“When that talk of expansion happened, there were people who wanted to head off the National Park Service,” Johannsen said. “They didn’t want them to have more land.”

Unlike the Chugach, which came about after a citizen’s initiative to create a state park, it was the State that introduced legislation to acquire Denali as a park. According to the Denali State Park management plan, “The legislature had a strong interest in tourism-related development, as well as providing recreational opportunities for Alaskans and preserving the area’s natural resources.”

Growing strong

Dave Johnston, who was the first ranger in Denali (hired in 1974 with the primary duty of collecting garbage and maintaining dumpsters), said there weren’t enough people living in the Denali area at the time to form any sort of community force to create parkland, but he’s glad the land eventually got earmarked as a state park.

“There were just a few families, and they were all spread out,” he said. “But the state, I think, liked the good fishing (locations) there, and people did come out to fish, especially after the Parks Highway went in.”

The legislature, on September 21, 1970, ultimately passed the bill to create the sister park to McKinley after having successfully adding Kachemak and Chugach to its cabinet of parks. It was a large chunk of land—some 280,947 acres—that by 1981 had grown, through various additions, to its current size of about 324,240 acres. 

“Alaska State Parks’ growth over the past 40 years is indeed remarkable,” Johannsen said. “As an agency that is constantly trying to do more with less money, and is subject to the boom and bust economy that affects agencies throughout the state government, Alaska State Parks has continued to persevere and maintain its amenities for users.”

While not every dream of every group has resulted in the establishment of a state park—Johannsen cited Thompson Pass and Hatcher Pass as two failed initiatives—for the most part, it is the people who have made Alaska State Parks what it is today. 

“If you look at every state park in Alaska, (each has) a history behind it,” he said. “They (all) result (from) a dream of a group of citizens somewhere who worked to make it happen.”

This article was researched and written for the Alaska State Parks 40th Anniversary History Project, which is supported in part by a grant from the Alaska Humanities Forum and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Melissa DeVaughn can be contacted at For more information about Alaska State Parks’ 40th Anniversary events, visit their website.

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