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Alaska is home to 23 national parks, which make up two-thirds of the United States’ 83 million acres of national parkland. In 2010, those parks attracted more than 2.2 million visitors.
Unfortunately, due to climate change, Alaska is warming at a faster rate than the rest of the United States, and some of the consequences within the national parks are cause for concern. Glacial melting has led to flooding and thawing permafrost has led to mudslides. Rising temperatures have also resulted in vegetation sprouting up in unexpected places along the tundra.
In order to preserve Alaska’s parkland, the National Park Service has developed a Climate Change Response Strategy to increase scientific data collection, manage adaptation efforts and promote public awareness about those efforts.
“Alaska’s still going to be here, and it’s still going to be a vast wilderness,” said Jim Stratton, senior regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association’s Alaska office. “It’s just going to be changed… we can’t really say how good or how bad it [will be].” And it’s too soon to say how those changes will affect tourism.
Thus far, Alaska’s tourism industry is doing fine. Visitation during the 2010 to 2011 fall/winter season went up by 3% from the 2009 to 2010 season, marking the first autumn/winter increase in four years, according to Alaska’s Office of Tourism Development.
But since conditions are ever-changing at the parks, here’s a quick roundup of what to keep in mind before visiting.
- Fee increase for Denali (Mount McKinley) -- Starting 1 January, it will be more expensive to climb Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in North America. Climbers over the age of 24 face fees of $350 per person, and climbers ages 24 and under will have to pay $250 per person. Fees for both groups are currently $200.
- Denali Park road closure -- This autumn, Denali Park Road will be closed at Mile 3, from 1 October to 23 November, due to a road maintenance project. Hikers and bikers should be aware of heavy machinery usage during this time.
- Denali mudslides -- In Denali National Park and Reserve, the ice-rich permafrost is thawing, leaving behind a mud slurry that can’t support the weight of soil and vegetation. One consequence is the threat of mudslides. Check conditions at Denali’s homepage before visiting.
- Fee increase for Mount Foraker -- The 1 January price hike for mountaineering in Mount Foraker is also $350 per person for ages 25 and up; $250 per person for ages 24 and under. That’s up from the current $200 per person.
- Bear activity -- In Glacier Bay National Park, there have been recent black bear sightings reported near Bartlett River. There have also been bear sightings in Wrangell-St Elias, near the Nugget Creek public use cabin and the Amphitheater Creek area near Nizina River. The Alaska Department of National Resources offers several bear safety tips to help travellers prepare for any outdoor trip through Alaska’s parks.
- Rerouted trails around Exit Glacier -- If you have visited Kenai Fjords National Park in the past, some hiking trails have changed. The reason is that Alaska’s warming climate has caused Exit Glacier, one of the park’s most popular attractions, to retreat. (The melting glacier has retreated about two miles over the last 200 years.) Take a look at park maps before going out on a trek.
- Exit Glacier floods -- Runoff from the melting Exit Glacier has been known to cause floods in Kenai Fjords National Park in summer, autumn and spring. Check Alaska’s National Park Service page for updates on road closures due to flooding.
- Fee free days -- This autumn, there are four free park days planned. On 24 September, and from 11 November to 13 November, entry fees for national parks will be waived. Check in with the National Park Service to keep up-to-date with the fee free days for 2012.
- Tuesday film series -- The park service will host a free film screening every Tuesday night at Kobuk Valley National Park and Cape Krusenstern National Monument until the end of summer 2012, as part of the Arctic Circle Film Series. The movies, which have included such classics as Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, focus on life in the Arctic. To learn about upcoming films, call the Northwest Arctic Heritage Center at 907-442-3890.
- Sled dog events -- Denali sometimes hosts sled dog demonstration events; see the park’s calendar for an upcoming schedule. Currently, the park’s website has a Puppy WebCam letting you see Denali’s sled dog puppies in (utterly adorable) action.