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Story last updated at 6:21 PM on Wednesday, July 14, 2010

K-Bay is born

40 years later, Alaska State Parks looks back at its beginnings

By MELISSA DeVAUGHN
For Alaska State Parks


 

Photo provided by Jeffrey Johnson

Jeff Johnson, left, poses with the 1985 Kachemak Bay State Park trail crew. Volunteers not only helped set trails, but also patrolled the water and added enough basic infrastructure to accommodate visitors without changing the character of the park.

In the late 1960s, Alaska was a different place. The phrase "power to the people" held some sway, and the population of the state was around 300,000 — less than half of today's nearly 700,000. It was a time when small groups of people truly believed they could accomplish big things.

And that is just what they did.

One of the biggest accomplishments of the time was the establishment of the state-run parks system, which established a system of parks, and recreation areas and sites, for Alaskans and visitors alike. This year, Alaska State Parks celebrates 40 years of existence — 40 years of growing, developing and fighting through the booms and busts of Alaska's economy to provide outdoor recreation opportunities while conserving and preserving the natural, cultural and historical integrity of the lands.

Neil Johannsen, the longest-serving director of the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation and now retired and living on Bainbridge Island, Wash., credits Alaskans for the bulk of the state's parks.

"There was certainly a citizens' movement but there were also some very interesting things happening at the time," said Johannsen, who held the director's position for nearly 13 years, from February 1983 to September 1995. "It was in 1969 that Charles Lindbergh gave a speech to the Legislature and in that speech he urged them to protect the land."

Some legislators even walked out on the meeting, Johannsen said.

Eventually, though, the Legislature saw the way, and in 1970, the Division of Parks came into being. In that first year — 1970 — three parks were established to form the state park system: Kachemak Bay, Denali and Chugach. They are the oldest, and perhaps most-loved and used parks in the state.

Kachemak Bay was the first, earning its designation as a state park when the Legislature, effective May 9, 1970, approved 105,387 acres as Kachemak Bay State Park. Two years later, the Legislature added nearly 200,000 acres, specifying it as a State Wilderness Park. By 1989, another 68,500 acres had been added into the mix. Today, it is at nearly 400,000 acres.

"Locals in Homer just called it 'Across the Bay,'" said Jeff Johnson, who would in 1984 become the park's first ranger. "They didn't call it Kachemak Bay State Park, they didn't think of it as a park. It was just 'across the bay.'"


 

Photo provided by Jeffrey Johnson

The first ranger for Kachemak Bay State Park based out of this cabin in Halibut Cove Lagoon. The building formerly had been an Alaska Department of Fish and Game hatchery.

It was a citizens' initiative that brought Kachemak Bay to reality, Johnson said. Like the Chugach, logging interests were threatening the land, and people who lived nearby did not want to see the landscape scarred by such practices.

Halibut Cove resident Clem Tillion — who lives there to this day — was a state senator in 1970 and was instrumental to the success of the initiative.

"Clem was (key), and he really is the father of Kachemak Bay State Park," agreed Johannsen. "He lived there and he wanted to protect the land from development. Without him, it would not have happened."

From his home in Halibut Cove, Tillion, who will be 85 this year, said he still has the original plat that he drew by hand, outlining the park boundaries to Kachemak.

"Kachemak was the recreation site requested by (the people of) Seldovia and Homer," Tillion said. "I picked out all the places that people shouldn't live and put them in the park. Anything with a harbor I left out, so there could be development."

Tillion also preferred the state be involved with protection of the land, rather than the federal government, "because I think we do need big parks but I don't support anything run by the federal government," he said. "I'm much like my forebears in that way."

Still, even after the park designation became official with the state, for a long time, the titles seemed simply a formality.

"We used to call them 'paper parks,'" Johnson said, because the parks had no staff and no facilities. "Human beings decided to set all this land aside for special purposes, but of course it was there and being enjoyed by people before it was ever a park."


 

Photo provided by Jeffrey Johnson

It may have been rustic, but the Kachemak Bay State Park ranger station had a million-dollar view from the kitchen window overlooking Halibut Cove Lagoon.

It took nearly 15 years for the cash-strapped state parks system to get enough money to staff the then-300,000-acre park, and Johnson calls it the best ranger job he ever had.

"For a ranger, it was the real deal," he said of his 10-year tenure there. He based out of a cabin in Halibut Cove Lagoon that had formerly been an Alaska Department of Fish and Game hatchery and was transferred to the Division of Parks. There, Johnson and whatever crew of volunteers he could muster helped set trails, patrol the water and add just enough basic infrastructure to accommodate visitors, but not so much as to impact the character of the area.

"We did a little bit of everything because so much needed to be done," he said.

The "new" ranger station was hard to get to, primarily because of the tidal action affecting entrance to the lagoon. Their only means of communication was a low-band radio.

"It was broken half the time," Johnson recalled. "We had a mile long wire from the ranger station up to the radio transmitter, a 20-minute hike away. That line would break in 35 places each year.

"For the first couple of weeks every season, I'd be up there climbing trees having to patch it together so we could communicate."

But, Johnson, said, "it was a ranger's dream come true, going to Alaska to be a park ranger and having the honor and thrill to have been among the first to be there as professionals. There aren't that many people in the world who have that chance."

This article was researched and written for the Alaska State Parks history project, which is supported in part by a grant from the Alaska Humanities Forum and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Melissa DeVaughn can be contacted at www.melissadevaughn.com.

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