OPINION: Dunleavy should be up-front about his motivations in eliminating Wood-Tikchik park management council

“There is one region in particular that ... should be reserved from injury, and that is the Wood River lake country. Surely the region around the Wood River lakes is the Switzerland of Alaska ... If the Government makes any park reserves for Alaska, surely the Wood River and its lakes should be set apart as such.”

— Dr. Joseph H. Romig, from Report to the Governor of Alaska, 1905

Dr. Joseph Romig, Alaska’s pioneer “dog team doctor,” went to Bristol Bay in 1904 to establish a hospital and territorial school on the banks of the Nushagak River. In his 1905 annual report of his activities to the governor, we find one of the earliest references to the beauty of a place we now know as the Wood-Tikchiks. Romig recommended the area be made into a park. The recommendation languished for 73 years until Alaska became a state and Republican Gov. Jay Hammond signed legislation creating the 1.6 million acre Wood-Tikchik State Park in 1978.

For Alaskans who may not be familiar with the Wood-Tikchik area, it can best be described as our finger lakes region. Glacial advances and retreats over millennia gouged a series of 13 long lakes that from space look as if a giant celestial bear ripped his claws from east to west across the landscape. The east end of the lakes are generally low and covered by shallow gravels spread by glacial outwash, that, moving westward become deep lakes dominated by mountains that rise from the water to form canyon-like freshwater fiords. This mosaic of terrain features is what makes this system of lakes that drain into Bristol Bay some of the most productive wild salmon habitats on earth.

Little has changed in the Wood-Tikchik area since Dr. Romig’s time. Indeed, little has changed since Russian explorers ventured through the region in kayaks in 1829 and first described the lakes, animals, and people living in this “Switzerland of Alaska.” Certainly, remoteness accounts in part for the pristine nature of the region today, but the vigilant efforts of local residents have also been a factor. Unlike perhaps any other park of its size in the nation, the Wood-Tikchik State Park is not managed solely by a government agency. Rather, the power to create the rules for overseeing the park was vested by the Legislature in the Wood-Tikchik State Park Management Council.

Back in the 1970s, when the idea for a park was being discussed, there was a base of local support, but also a significant concern that management of a park exclusively by the state could at some future time result in a loss of those lands for traditional subsistence and recreational hunting and fishing. A compromise was struck by the Legislature with the formation of a management council as opposed to a simple advisory council. That compromise envisioned a system of shared stewardship and trust between the State and the communities nearest to and most dependent upon the wilderness resources protected by the newly created park. The establishment of the Management Council with required local voting membership was the compact that soothed local uncertainty and cleared the way for the creation of what is now the jewel of Alaska’s state park system.

So, what has not been working with the Wood-Tikchik Management Council that our governor feels so compelled to eliminate it after 46 years with Executive Order 126? We don’t know. He offers only an unsupported “finding” that it would be more efficient to have the Park administered solely by the Department of Natural Resources. No explanation. No facts.


Without more, this order appears to be nothing more than an executive ploy to eliminate a very successful instrument created by the Legislature. This suggests the governor may want to eliminate the Management Council not because it is inefficient, but because it has been so effective at implementing the purposes for which the park was created.

The primary purpose for creating the park was, in the words of the enabling legislation, to “protect the area’s fish and wildlife breeding and support systems.” One measure of the Management Council’s effectiveness may be the historic runs of sockeye salmon returning to park waters in the last decade, which may not have occurred without the management plan adopted by the Council for the park in 2002. The sockeye salmon that spawn and rear within park boundaries put millions of dollars into the pockets of Bristol Bay fishermen, processors and the coffers of the state.

Preserving the “continued use of the area for subsistence and recreational activities” is also a mandate of the enabling legislation. Here again, all indications suggest the Management Council has been doing its job well. The Park continues to provide wildlife and fish to support the subsistence needs of Alaskans as well as becoming an internationally recognized destination for catch-and-release fly fishing and remote wilderness excursions.

By all objective measurements, the Management Council appears to be doing exactly the job assigned to it by the Legislature and has been doing it effectively for 46 years. We shouldn’t be spending our limited time and energy on things that aren’t broken, especially when there are more pressing public issues clamoring for solutions.

If the issue is truly about inefficiencies then, in good faith, the governor should go through the front door and work with the Wood-Tikchik State Park Management Council to eliminate any inefficiencies or propose legislation to address his concerns, rather than sneak through the back door with a surprise Executive Order to kill it. The future of the Wood-Tikchik State Park Management Council should be a question openly debated and fully vetted in both houses of the Legislature, just as its creation was 46 years ago.

Tim Troll and his wife Leanne raised their sons camping and fishing in the Wood-Tikchik State Park.

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Tim Troll

Tim Troll is Executive Director of the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust, an organization dedicated to preserving the wildlife habitat, culture and history of the Bristol Bay region.