Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve

Wrangell- St. Elias National Park and Preserve is located in the southeastern portion of the American state of Alaska. The park holds 13,175,799 acres of land, divided between the park and preserve, which was once inhabited by Native Americans like the Ahtna and Tlingit peoples. Although Alaska was purchased by the United States in 1867, American citizens did not move into the area until the 1880’s, when gold was discovered in the Yukon Territory. It is thought that George Holt was the first man to explore the Copper River, leading to other expeditions further down the same river. By 1885, the Copper River and Chitina River were fully explored by Lieutenant Henry Tureman Allen. This route led Allen and his team directly to the Bering Sea.  Eventually, gold miners moved into this area after finding gold amongst the copper.

The establishment of Wrangell- St. Elias National Park and Preserve began in 1908, after the National Park Service was created, but proposals that were suggested in this year were not pursued. Between the 1930’s and 1940’s, studies occurred that calculated the viability of opening a national park in that area, although some surveyors supported preservation only. The first completed proposal placed the park in the Chitina Valley and would have held features including Kennicott National Monument and Kennicott Glacier. However, this plan was not accepted due to little reason for its establishment and the looming threat of World War 2.

In 1976, many bills were introduced to Congress to create Wrangell- St. Elias National Park and Preserve, but these bills failed. Despite this, one of the bills presented the idea of national preserves, which would give national protection to areas without strict hunting regulations. The first Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) was proposed in Congress one year later, which held plans for a Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and a Chisana National Preserve. After much opposition from Alaskan state officials, which killed the initial ANILCA bill, President Jimmy Carter used the Antiquities Act to establish Wrangell-St. Elias National Monument and sixteen other national monuments. The ANILCA act was passed in 1980 and signed by Jimmy Carter, which officially established the Wrangell area as a national park and preserve.

Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve is comprised of many areas including western areas of the Saint Elias Mountains, eastern areas of the Chugach Mountains, and the entire Wrangell Mountain range. The park contains other mountains in the Alaska Range and the Granite Range, as well as many bodies of running water including the Chisana River, Chitina River, and the Nabesna River. Two of these rivers, excluding the Chisana River, empty into Copper River in the western area of the park. The park also hold glaciers, which comprise nearly sixty percent of Alaska’s glacial ice. One of these glaciers, known as Malaspina Glacier, is the largest glacier in North America, but all of the glaciers in the park are thought to be retreating. The park is bordered by Kluane National Park and Reserve, a Canadian National Park and Preserve, in the east and by the Tongass National Forest, Gulf of Alaska, and Yakutat Bay in the southeast.

Wrangell- St. Elias National Park and Preserve is located in an area of terranes that have been affected by tectonic activity. Tectonic plates, known as the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate, are currently moving against each other at a rate of two inches per year in this area, and have resulted in the formation of volcanoes in an area known as the Wrangell volcanic field. Most of the volcanoes in the field can be found in the western portion of the Wrangell Mountain range. These volcanoes, created by subduction, are unusual because they are not explosive. Volcanoes comprise the ten highest points in the park and Mount Wrangell is the only volcano in the park that is considered active.

The elevations in Wrangell- St. Elias National park and Preserve vary between sea level and 19,000 feet, creating a diversity of habitats throughout the area. Large portions of the area are comprised of glacial ice and braided riverbeds, but there are five other major habitats in the park including uplands, lowlands, alpine areas, sub-alpine areas, and wetlands. The plant life in the park depends upon these habitats, with different types occurring in different regions. The upland habitats in the park hold a more arid climate and support boreal forests, also known as taiga, including species like white and black spruce trees and quaking aspen. Lowland areas of the park mainly hold black spruce, mosses, and alder trees. Alpine areas in the park hold forbs, shrubs, and graminoids. Animal species that occur in the area include black bears, brown bears, gray wolves, Dall sheep, lynxes, coyotes, ground squirrels, sockeye salmon, Chinook fish, American robins, and great horned owls.

Wrangell- St. Elias National Park and Preserve can be accessed by a highway in Anchorage and two gravel roads, the Nabesna Road and the McCarthy Road, extend through the park. Visitors can also enter the park by chartering a private airplane flight. There are many small communities within the park including Chisana, Nabesna, McCarthy, and Kennicott. Visitors can camp along the Nabesna Road, but this area is the only one for public camping. Visitors can stay in many private lodges or campgrounds. Some of the most popular activities in the park include mountain climbing, kayak touring, back country hiking, and visiting one of the few visitors’ centers in the park. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is typically open between the months of May and September, although the main visitor center remains open throughout the winter season during weekdays.

Image Caption: Mount Saint Elias, 2nd highest mountain in Canada and the USA. South Central Alaska, Icy Bay. Credit: Mr. David Sinson, NOAA, Office of Coast Survey/Wikipedia