Katmai’s Bridge to Nowhere
Each summer Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park attracts thousands of visitors, most to view brown bears that gather on Brooks River. A bear atop Brooks Falls poised to snag a leaping salmon is one of Alaska’s iconic images.
Bear viewing at Brooks has boomed in recent years. A steady increase in visitor numbers and a surge in 2016 reflect the overall increase in Alaska travel. An up-close look at a wild bear has become a hallmark of almost every Alaska vacation
This summer the National Park Service will begin construction of a new bridge across Brooks River to allay the bottleneck of bear viewers at one of the world’s most famous bear viewing locations.
Over-crowding has been a problem at Katmai for years, mainly in July, the peak season for activity at Brooks Falls. Other than limits on the campground, the park does not currently limit visitation. Day trippers and lodge guests vie with campers for access to the falls viewing platform.
Bears fish the entire length of the river, a favored spot near the existing seasonal bridge. The park enforces a distance regulation to separate people from bears which often creates a traffic jam at the bridge. Crowds form as visitors wait for bears to move away. Once across the river long lines again develop at the Brooks Falls trailhead as visitors await their turn to access the viewing platform at the falls. Visitors in past seasons sometimes were limited to as little as 20-minutes at the platform; currently the limit in peak season is one hour. Imagine, spending thousands of dollars to access a jewel in the National Park system and be allowed 20-minutes at the prime location. Consequently, some knowledgeable travelers, namely Alaskans, are dissuaded from visiting the park. Yet, the new park concessioner, operator of Brooks Lodge, reportedly plans this summer to increase the number of fly-in day visitors exacerbating the problem.
The multimillion dollar bridge, and approach ramps, across the river mouth will be 14-feet-high and over 1,550-feet-long. Park Service states that the purpose of the new bridge is to “enhance visitor experience and safety.” To facilitate construction the park will also construct a new boat landing and short access road.
The new bridge will likely alleviate the visitor jams at either side of the current floating bridge but do absolutely nothing to reduce or eliminate the lines at the falls’ trailhead. The bridge only will serve to funnel ever higher numbers of visitors across the river with the foreseeable result that platform time will be further reduced to accommodate the larger demand.
Brooks Camp, for all its flaws, maintains a sense of the rustic and a sense of the wild. Small log cabins and the floating bridge maintain the wild feel many visitors expect in remote Alaska. A freeway overpass-like structure is totally inappropriate for this area, given its short one-month-long peak season. One of the most beautiful locations within the entire park will be permanently scarred by this intrusive project. A 13 million dollar bridge to solve a problem that exists for a few weeks a year makes little economic sense.
The vast majority of visitors to Brooks come to see bears in world class bear habitat and in a world class scenic location, relatively unspoiled by infrastructure. I’ve never heard any visitor suggest their experience would be heightened by a mega-bridge. Most want less crowding, and longer viewing times at the falls, not reduced or tightly-limited viewing times. The bridge will do little other than facilitate easy movement of ever larger numbers of people. It is hard to imagine many visitors suggesting that a mega-bridge in such a beautiful location is worth trading for easier access, or fewer hassles at the floating bridge. We go as visitors to Katmai to view these bears on their terms. I think it’s reasonable to expect to wait while a bear rests or saunters by. It’s an inconvenience, but convenience shouldn’t be the reason we’re there.
The real issue at Katmai is the Park Service’s long-standing inability or unwillingness to limit visitation. Many wildlife habitats can be quickly degraded and wildlife displaced by too many people. We see this same problem developing on the Katmai coast where fly-in day trippers are negatively impacting the wildlife resource and so far the park service has done nothing to curtail this growing problem. Nearby McNeil River State Game Sanctuary offers a model for Katmai and other natural areas. Instead of funneling ever larger numbers of people into the sanctuary, visitation is tightly controlled, consequently McNeil’s world-class viewer experience has remained undiminished over the decades.
Katmai’s bridge to nowhere will only degrade the park and park experience when what is really needed is limits on visitation.