Designated wilderness areas exist in national parks from coast to coast, but many of them can be described as "islands of wildness surrounded by development." Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is an exception, "a wild place within the context of equally wild and sometimes wilder surroundings," and the park has prepared a document that "clearly defines the current status of and threats to the park's wilderness character."
Susan L. Boudreau, the Superintendent of Glacier National Park and Preserve, announced the release of the park's "Wilderness Character Narrative" on April 28. "As the Superintendent entrusted with the care of over 2.7 million acres of designated and eligible wilderness within Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, I take very seriously our mandate to preserve wilderness character," Boudreau noted. "The Wilderness Act turns 50 this year, and this narrative details just how much wildness we have to celebrate in Glacier Bay!"
The narrative describes "five tangible and measurable qualities of wilderness character in Glacier Bay’s Wilderness: natural; untrammeled; undeveloped; solitude or primitive and unconfined recreation; and marine wilderness. These qualities provide the setting from which a suite of wilderness values are derived."
There's little question Glacier Bay offers some special values, and the park's website offers a nice summary: "Covering 3.3 million acres of rugged mountains, dynamic glaciers, temperate rainforest, wild coastlines, and deep sheltered fjords, Glacier Bay National Park is a highlight of Alaska's Inside Passage and part of a 25-million acre World Heritage Site—one of the world’s largest international protected areas. From summit to sea, Glacier Bay offers limitless opportunities for adventure and inspiration."
So, what is a "Wilderness Character Narrative"? According to the document's overview, it is a "positive and affirming description of what is unique and special about this wilderness," and "clearly defines the current status of and threats to the wilderness character of Glacier Bay National Park."
Superintend Boudreau notes that "Wilderness inspires a more generous description of its values than a bullet list; threats to Glacier Bay's wilderness lie predominantly in massive anthropogenic changes that cannot be synopsized in a sentence or two. The wilderness character narrative will serve a variety of functions for park staff, visitors, and partners:
• By providing considerable detail, the narrative complements Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve's Foundation Statement and will serve as a backbone for a future Backcountry and Wilderness Stewardship Plan.
• By clarifying what wilderness character is and the primary forces that preserve and degrade it, it provides a solid basis for identifying appropriate measures to assess trends in wilderness character.
• By explaining what is unique and special about Glacier Bay's Wilderness, it is a foundation for interpretation and serves as a basis for discussion with the public about the current and future state of the wilderness.
• By making the concept of wilderness character tangible and specific, it provides a robust way to frame and articulate management decisions.
A casual glance at the numbers—over 2.6 million acres of wilderness—suggests the park includes plenty of space for a true wilderness experience for visitors, but that same dramatic and rugged landscape that provides spectacular scenery also poses some limitations. The "Wilderness Management" page on the park's website sums up current and future challenges:
"Backcountry use in Glacier Bay National Park has begun to increase rapidly in recent years as public awareness of this unique marine wilderness park has grown. This has placed an increasing demand on park resources to accommodate an expanding array of visitor activities."
"The vast majority of backcountry use occurs along the shoreline within the bay proper. The steep topography of much of this coastal zone limits the area available for camping. Use is further concentrated as visitors are mostly attracted to the upper bay to view tidewater glaciers. Administrative closures of certain beaches due to bear concerns or for wildlife protection have added to camper congestion on the remaining suitable beaches. The result has been a management concern that the visitor experience in Glacier Bay as well as the biological integrity of park resources may be compromised if unlimited growth in visitation continues."
The brief video clip below offers a peek at some of the park's outstanding scenery that can be enjoyed by backcountry users in the Alsek Lake area.
A video guide for backcountry campers in the park says Glacier Bay is "something incredibly rare in the world today: a very large, pristine, intact ecosystem." Will that statement continue to be true in the years ahead? It may be a challenge, but it's a worthy goal, and the Wilderness Character Narrative is simply one small part of the effort. You can view or download the document at this link, and a 16-minute video titled "Glacier Bay – Forever Wild" can be viewed here, for another glimspe into this park's spectacular wilderness.