Park superintendent talks of plans
Leaving a lighter footprint
Heidi Zemach | For the LOG
Jeff Mow, superintendent of Kenai Fjords National Park, brought business leaders up to date on some of the interesting happenings in the beautiful national park in our midst at the Seward Chamber of Commerce’s Friday lunch meeting. He thanked them for their continuing partnership with the park, and explained that their role in connecting people with the park was important to the park, while in turn, the attractions that the park offers brings people to Seward, and to their businesses.
“Exit Glacier really is a very different place in the winter than in the summer,” Mow said, showing recent photographs of the snow-covered visitor center, roads and trails. Measured snowfall was 18 feet there this winter, although some will be surprised to learn that the amount of estimated snow on the Harding Icefield this winter was normal, and temperatures remained only a few degrees cooler than they were at sea level, Mow said.
The Exit Glacier/Herman Leirer Road recently re-opened to road traffic, a little later than normal, and the foot trail to the face of the glacier is finally clear of snow. But hikers will notice large numbers of broken trees and snapped branches along the way, and moose browse relatively high up in the trees, evidence left over from the harsh winter conditions there.
Meanwhile, construction workers have been busy renovating the visitor center in time for this week’s opening, and installing new interpretive exhibits that Mow hopes will more effectively tell the park’s story. That story highlights the continued receding of Exit Glacier over the past 6 years and some of the historic uses of Harding Icefield, such as the re-emergence of buried sites like a snow machine camp.
In the park’s ongoing efforts to reduce its carbon footprint, the park service has started up a modern new hydrogen fuel cell it installed to provide power to the visitor center, which is off the local electric grid. The more modern model is currently in use by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. The NPS believes that it will work better than the former hydrogen fuel cell project that the park had piloted for several years, but that only worked intermittently. Propane generators currently are used to run water and flush toilets in the area.
Kenai Fjords National Park is an active participant in a national survey documenting public perceptions of global climate change, and how visitors to nation’s parks and other businesses view it, and prefer to learn about its effects. A Yale/George Mason University survey found that visitors to parks such as this one generally were more concerned about climate change than the general public is. Surprising to Mow, however, was the finding that the majority of visitors surveyed said they preferred to learn about the subject over the Internet rather than by talking to an actual park ranger. So the park service now better understands the importance of maintaining a robust Internet site.
This winter was the inaugural year for entrepreneur Rick Brown’s snowcat, which was was able to operate for about two months due to all of the deep snow. The private snow shuttle operation “broke the ice” for the park services’ own proposal to find ways to bring some more intrepid winter visitors into the park, since the Seward military recreation camp ceased its own snow-shuttle operations. They are a difficult group of visitors to track or to market to, Mow said, but small businesses from Seward to Cooper Landing are already exploring opportunities related to the new venture. Brown is hopeful that his snow coach will continue to do well, especially if next winter is anything like this one, Mow said.
The park has done a lot of trail work in the Exit Glacier visiting area, but in this unusually dynamic environment, one that significantly erodes trails, some major trails will have to be relocated in order to keep up with the changing landscape, Mow said. He advocates adopting a flexible, light-handed trail development for the area, featuring inexpensive trails. The costly stone and timber kiosk that NPS built some years ago to showcase aspects of the glacier has grown obsolete as plants and the glacier moved away. In hindsight, that structure was perhaps not a good idea, he said. Last year, the park opened an additional spur trail to take visitors closer to the face of the glacier, but as the glacier continues to recede, the park may be running out of places to extend the spur Mow said. The park service has asked a group of interested landscape architects to explore how the park can best continue to offer that close-up glacier experience, while keeping visitors from danger.
The park service also is figuring out how best to deal with a spate of new summer floods across Exit Glacier/Herman Leirer Road that began in the summer of 2009, and that has continued in each the following few years. Metco Inc. helped rebuild the shoulder of the road three times due to its erosion. The park service is using consultants to help determine the cause of the flooding, which is not clearly linked to high rates of precipitation. It is also consulting with highway engineers as to what can be done over the long term. In the interim, the park has been adding more rip-rap to the southern side of the road to help minimize erosion.
After initially closing the flooded areas of road to the park to summer visitors, the park service was informed that traversing up to six inches of standing water over the road’s surface would not be dangerous, so the park has been experimenting with keeping the road open during the daytime, and encouraging visitors to drive carefully through the flooded areas. As a result, the road was closed only closed one day and three nights last summer. The park superintendent said he never thought he’d have to send a dozen national park staff out for highway flagging training, which is a new direction for the park service.
The park service also is keeping a keen eye on what’s happening in its more remote areas, including the trail to Harding Icefield, and its remote bays and fjords. About 20 thousand people currently hike up to the NPS public use cabin every year, Mow said. The trail was originally designed as a way for rugged mountain climbers to access a climbing point to the glacier, but the trail has since been re-routed, and made safer for hikers.
The public interest in Aialik Bay and its landing beach is growing. A dozen tour boats visit the area every day, and park service staff have seen as many as 40 people standing on a remote beach that used to have no one. Interest has increased to the point that some kayak tour companies have started moving their visitors further out to Harris Bay for that pristine back-country experience, Mow said.
Park service personnel have been keeping watch for marine debris associated with the tsunami from last year’s earthquake in Japan that may land on the remote beaches. They will keep continue monitoring the area’s debris as time goes on. To date they have not noticed a higher level of debris, nor found debris that they could identify as coming from the tsunami, Mow said.
The park-service also is working to divest itself of a number of buildings and land it owns in downtown Seward. The NPS will begin renovating the Old Solly’s building this fall for use as its main administrative office building. They plan to maintain its historic look and character, and to move into the building by the fall of 2013. The park service will then divest itself of ownership in the Legends building, and of land near the new library museum that could be used for parking. The service will make use of the old Shea plumbing shop, but will remove the adjacent quonset hut.