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Denali National Park's History Rooted in Preservation

By Steve Mac Donald, Special Projects Manager and Host of "The 49th Report" and "One Alaska", stevem@ktuu.com
Published On: Jul 10 2013 10:35:00 AM AKDT

While Denali, North America's highest peak, may be the cornerstone of the park today, it's not the reason the land was set aside nearly a century ago by congress.

DENALI -

Mention Denali National Park and the first image people may envision is the 20,320-foot mountain the park surrounds.

While Denali, North America's highest peak, may be the cornerstone of the park today, it's not the reason the land was set aside nearly a century ago by congress. In fact, it was something much smaller that provided the reason for the land preservation. 

It was 106 years ago when hunter and conservationist Charles Alexander Sheldon arrived in the interior Alaska town of Fairbanks. From there he traveled south by river boat and horse back to the gold fields of Eureka. A place that would later be renamed Kantishna. It was here that he hoped to find Dall sheep, an animal the Vermont-born Sheldon had become fascinated with.

Very little was known about this species of sheep. Sheldon planned on doing research, as well as hunt the animals, with specimens shipped south for further study.

Sheldon finally found what he was after along the mountainsides near the Tolkat River.

During his stay Sheldon made an alarming discovery. He saw that market hunters were killing sheep in high numbers. The hunters sold the meat to mining camps to feed workers.

Sheldon also knew that in the near future construction of a railroad line would also begin through the Interior. That would mean more workers to be fed.

He felt the future of Dall sheep was under threat.

After spending the summer in the interior, Sheldon and his crew headed back to the continental United States.

In 1907 Sheldon and Harry Karstens returned to the Toklat area this time to spend a year exploring and doing more research.

The two men built a cabin near the Toklat River. It was there in January of 1908 they discussed plans to have the region designated a national park in order to protect the sheep population from being decimated and the land from development.

Sheldon had powerful connections in Washington, D.C. For several years he lobbied congress to declare some 2 million acres of land form a national park.

In 1917 Congress created Mount McKinley National Park. The newly minted park got off to an inauspicious start however. For the first few years no one visited the remote park located in the heart of Alaska’s wilderness.

Over the decades the park, now known as Denali National Park after passage of the Alaskan Lands act, is a prime attraction for visitors from around the world. On average more than 400,000 people arrive at Denali each summer.

They witness a land that has been largely untouched along with the wildlife that roams there.

And the mountainsides are dotted with Dall sheep. The animal Charles Sheldon sought to protect still thrives in the park he fought to create.

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