Glacier Bay National Park Taking Input On Draft Wilderness Management Plan

Scenic view from atop Excursion Ridge in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve/NPS, S. Tevebaugh

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in Alaska has never seen 1 million visitors in one season, or even 750,000, and most of those who do visit the 2.6-million-acre park stick around Gustavus and take a day tour up and back down the 65-mile bay. But that doesn’t mean the park shouldn’t have a wilderness management plan. That’s why there’s a draft version ready for your input.

“The need for the plan is to outline strategies that respond to increasing and changing visitor demands and provide broad guidance for terrestrial and marine wilderness areas. The purpose of the plan is to provide for the protection of natural and cultural resources and values, wilderness character, and high-quality visitor experiences within wilderness,” park staff wrote in the opening chapter of the 208-page plan.

Areas touched on by the plan include:

  • Provide visitor access to tidewater glaciers. Core to Glacier Bay’s enabling proclamation is visitor access to tidewater glaciers. Tidewater glaciers, although not unique to Glacier Bay, are a defining feature of the landscape and a significant draw for park visitors. Increasing visitation to tidewater glacial areas creates challenges for maintaining and improving visitor experience and resource conditions in these popular areas.
  • Provide guidance for commercial service providers to collaboratively achieve park desired conditions and goals. As current contracts are written, commercial tour operators lack clear boundaries and expectations for use, lack guidelines specific to the wilderness, and do not consistently address wilderness character, homeland values, or resource protection in business practices. The park does not have a standardized format for reviewing commercial use of the backcountry and wilderness lands. Opportunities exist for commercial tour operators to offer additional customized tour options that would change the timing, duration, and location of day use activities.
  • Address conflicting use and expectations in heavily used areas. In the dynamic Glacier Bay landscape, there are a shrinking number of high demand visitor attractions as tidewater glaciers melt and glacial recession and vegetation succession limits opportunities for wildlife viewing and hiking in certain areas. Visitation is further limited to a narrow band of marine shoreline by geography and physical conditions including steep terrain, dense vegetation, and few beaches. Visitors ranging from backcountry campers to tour vessel passengers are increasingly recreating in the same areas, and multiple user groups in heavily used areas may result in conflicts of expectations, experiences, and impacts to wilderness character
  • Incorporate Tlingit Homeland values in wilderness management. The wilderness character of Glacier Bay National Park is defined, in part, by the sustained connection between past, present, and future generations of Tlingit and the lands and waters they call Homeland. Tlingit interactions with Homeland have shaped the ecology of the area for countless generations through simple acts such as harvesting berries, salmon, and gull eggs and through more complex metaphysical and spiritual processes as well. In the distant past, a young girl called down a faraway glacier, forever altering the Glacier Bay landscape, and even today, glaciers calve, icebergs slide gently away, and turbulent waters settle when the Huna Tlingit proffer food and tobacco to the spirits of living and non-living beings. While Wilderness Act language has sometimes been interpreted to preclude Homeland concepts, the original intent of the act was not to deny Indigenous inhabitation and use of wilderness areas, or the ecological role indigenous people played in landscapes. Management strategies for park wilderness must incorporate Tlingit perceptions of a landscape that has supported humans since time immemorial. 
  • Define desired conditions for resources and visitor experiences within and on areas adjacent to marine wilderness areas. Glacier Bay protects 53,000 acres of designated marine wilderness. Protecting marine wilderness presents unique challenges and opportunities given the considerable connectedness of marine ecosystems, the importance of the ocean’s most productive and biologically diverse areas to commercial interests, and climate change. With increasing visitation, changes to visitation patterns and activities and the desire to access those designated marine wilderness areas and adjacent areas, there is a need to address and define desired conditions for resources and visitor experiences within and adjacent to marine wilderness
  • Protect wildlife and sensitive shoreline areas. In addition to camping, Glacier Bay’s shoreline is an increasingly popular destination for day use activities, such as hiking. Commercial use in these shoreline areas has more than tripled in the past few years (from 2016 to 2021, excluding 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic). Increasing visitor use may result in impacts to resources (wildlife, habitat, and cultural) in areas sensitive to disturbance. 
  • Understand intact, complex terrestrial and marine ecosystems. Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve’s enabling proclamation identifies “scientific inquiry” as a primary park purpose. As climate change and other stressors impact wilderness resources, Glacier Bay’s legacy of research (with records dating to 1891) and contiguous wilderness lands make it an ideal living laboratory to study natural processes and the human potential to affect them, including impacts from anthropogenic climate change. At the same time, it is important to ensure that the benefit of research investigations outweigh negative impacts to other wilderness values.

This is no simple document.

Beyond the overriding goal of preserving wilderness character and mitigating impacts from visitors and other sources, it applies Wilderness Act mandates to one of only a few marine wilderness areas in the world; encourages research and scientific discovery that allow Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve to continue serving as a living laboratory; fosters understanding of Indigenous Tlingit perceptions of Homeland and protect the enduring spiritual connection between future, living, and ancestral Tlingit in Glacier Bay Homeland in the backcountry; provides a range of premium wilderness experiences; balances high-quality wilderness experiences with allowances for concentrated use at tidewater glaciers and hiking accessible glaciers; provides on-site and virtual visitors opportunities to learn about the natural, cultural, and wilderness resources of Glacier Bay National Park, including the connection between generations of Tlingit and Homeland, the opportunity for scientific discovery, and the dynamic glacial landscape.

What else will you find in the document? Under the draft, things the Park Service is proposing include:

  • Not building backcountry cabins for public use, finding in part that “[S]imilar facilities in comparable locations in Alaska (Kenai Fjords National Park and Tongass National Forest) have seen an occupancy rate of 20–60 percent, suggesting that construction of such structures may have a disproportionate impact to the visitor experience of viewing undeveloped shorelines, relative to the value of being able to stay in a cabin.”
  • Continued use of the day-tour boat to act as a shuttle for backcountry travelers. “These drop-off/pick-up points would continue to be reviewed annually and listed in the annual wilderness operating plan. Access points are set to support visitor experiences in both arms of Glacier Bay and would be rotated as much as possible to reduce impacts from off-vessel activities, such as camping and informal trail creation at specific sites.”
  • The park staff will continue to use occasional closures of areas “to restrict human use … particularly when sensitive species, such as concentrations of ground-nesting birds, harbor seals, or sea lions, are present. Recent research results have shown that certain levels of human use cause decreases in shoreline activity of bears, wolves, and moose, so limiting human use in important wildlife habitat may be warranted. Additionally, areas may be temporarily closed after human-wildlife conflicts to minimize safety risks to the public and/or wildlife.
  • To provide a diversity of wilderness experiences, the staff might close some areas to motor vessels and seaplanes so as to allow “visitors [to] enjoy enhanced opportunities for human-powered recreation in immersive marine settings that emphasize human-powered recreation and the natural soundscapes of Glacier Bay.”
  • Basic and applied research would be allowed to occur in all zones, subject to permitting review to determine whether the proposed research is consistent with the park’s enabling purposes and to minimize adverse impacts to wilderness character through mitigations.
  • Management direction for protecting Tlingit Homeland values focuses on strengthening government-to-government communication; continued efforts to document, protect, and share, as appropriate, ethnographic and archeological resources, including resources previously classified as historic structures that more appropriately would be reclassified as ethnographic resources; facilitating and encouraging ongoing connections with Homeland; and commemorating villages or other sacred sites in appropriate ways.
  • The group size for all use types (overnight and day visits) within wilderness would be limited to no more than 12 people (including guides), common to all zones year-round.

That’s just an overview of what’s in the draft plan. If Glacier Bay is one of your favorite go-to parks, or if you simply value wilderness qualities and protection of them, you should review this document and comment on it by March 17.

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