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Call Of The Wild Popularity Prickly Problem For Alaska Frontier

Along a wilderness river deep in Alaska’s remote Brooks Range, Macgill Adams found the wolves that leave him wrestling with the dark side of tourism.

Adams makes his living in this business, guiding small groups of clients on wilderness trips.

It was in that capacity that he discovered a family of Brooks Range wolves near their den. For a guide, this is a wildlife-viewing bonanza. People pay big bucks to come to Alaska to see wolves, and dens present the only opportunity to guarantee such sightings. Thus it is no surprise that when word leaked out of this den near a regularly floated river, people started coming to watch wolves. Adams believes this eventually forced the wolves to desert their home.

For these wolves in America’s last great wilderness, that brush with humanity was too much.

For many in Alaska, this should be easy to understand, though for humans the irritation is not from the brush of humanity, but the crush of humanity. From the banks of the angler-trampled Russian River to the waiting lines for the Denali National Park buses, Alaskans are struggling with tourism’s growth.

This was one of the issues the Alaska Wilderness Recreation and Tourism Association met to discuss at its annual Ecotourism in Alaska Conference here last week. The association represents the most sensitive of the best-intentioned, but in most regards the group is little different from any of the others who cherish the Alaska wilderness: They want to be able to go where they want, when they want, with whomever they want, without the experience ever changing.

Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work that way.

To remain wild, wild lands must be protected in one of two ways: By limiting the number of people who can go there, an idea nobody in Alaska likes; or by making people pay in sweat equity to get there, another idea in disfavor.

Sitting on an association panel talking about all of this last week, I kept thinking of some of the discussions over the years with advocates of motorized recreation with their dozen reasons why it is so unfair to make people walk into Alaska wilderness.

In the end, their argument always comes down to this: No matter what happens, you can always get away from it all by driving farther. If forced to go on foot, nobody can run far enough to escape humanity. Or at least they can’t run far enough to escape humanity while still being able to bring along all the comforts of home.

The problem of the millennium is that the running room is disappearing. Alaska’s population continues to grow, and then there is that annual summer invasion of tourists that offers both economic boom and, in some respects, social bust.

The latter is one of those things on which the motorheads - who hate to compete with anyone for a salmon, let alone a tourist - and the eco-minded members of the association agree.

What should be done about it is one of the big questions the state needs to face. The simple suggestion of many association members was to stop marketing Alaska, apparently on the assumption that if you don’t tell them, they won’t come.

Some association members were particularly irritated that the state pushes brown bears, whales and eagles in its promotional materials, creating visitor expectations that are hard to fulfill.

Only one small problem. Along with great scenery, and some spectacular hunting and fishing over which a subsistence war is now being fought, the wildlife viewing is the best thing Alaska has to sell.

As Robin West, manager of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, noted, people come to Alaska to see bears and wolves just like they go to Africa to see lions and elephants.

Tourists want Disneyland North. Maybe it’s time the state delivered.

A busload of people watching a wolf den with spotting scopes from a visitor pullout a discrete distance away would have far less of an impact than a handful of people trying to get within a few yards of the same wolf den.

An elevated, bear-viewing tramway at McNeil River or Brooks River in Katmai National Park and Preserve would soak up a huge volume of the bear-viewing demand without disturbing any bears.

A monorail or train at Denali would move far greater numbers of tourists through the park with less effect on the wildlife, greater safety and better viewing opportunities. Some people like to dump on this sort of “industrial tourism.” They berate the tourists using it for failing to get out and connect with the land, but isn’t that what we really want?

Isn’t the best place for a tourist in a train, plane, bus or building, or spending money in an Alaska store?

MEMO: (Craig Medred writes for the Anchorage (Alaska) Daily News.)

(Craig Medred writes for the Anchorage (Alaska) Daily News.)