Alaska Field Report: Preservation in the Wild

Posted on: September 6th, 2011 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

Written by Brian R. Turner

Forest Service archaeologist Martin Stanford hiking in the Tongass National Forest. (Photo: Brian R. Turner)

Stewarding historic and cultural properties within Alaska’s vast network of public lands is not only technically and physically challenging, it can be downright dangerous.   On a recent field visit to a remote site deep within the Misty Fjords National Monument, a floatplane dropped me and three Forest Service employees on the shores of a pristine bay, about an hour’s flight from the nearest road in Ketchikan.

Our purpose was to conduct a basic conditions assessment of the oldest stone masonry structure in the state, a half hour walk through the bush from the shore.  As we set out, I watched in anticipation as Forest Service archaeologist Martin Stanford loaded a shotgun and slung it on his back to guard against a bear attack – standard procedure.   Eagles, gulls and herons were the only visible signs of life, and we hoped to keep it that way.  In addition to the gun, hard hats, waterproof boots, mosquito repellant, and bushwhacking skills were essential.

Storehouse #3, as the site is known, was built by U.S. Army Captain David Gaillard and a team of stone masons in 1896.  The builder would later gain fame for spearheading the central cut of the Panama Canal, the Gaillard Cut, one of the great engineering feats of the 20th Century.  Gaillard’s goal in building the storehouse, one of four, was to prove U.S. use of the land in a boundary dispute with Canada, later resolved in arbitration.  It was apparent that #3 was built with exceptional skill considering it has survived for so long in the harsh conditions of the Southeast Alaska wilderness.

Storehouse #3, circa 1896, is the oldest stone masonry structure in Alaska. (Photo: Brian R. Turner)

The storehouse is an important reminder that humans have left their mark in even the most remote places on earth.   Naturally, in a state as vast as Alaska, with over 222 million acres of public land (bigger than Texas and Oklahoma combined), it is a tremendous aspiration for federal lands agencies to identify and protect every tangible and intangible reminder of 10,000+ years of human occupation.  But appreciating how humans survived in Alaska’s harsh environment helps us better understand our own connection with the wild.  Further, what we protect now will help future generations maintain a key connection to the past.

Undoubtedly, historic and cultural sites both above and below the ground, are disappearing every day in Alaska.  Many have never been recorded.  Some of the most rapid deterioration is being wrought by a changing climate.  On the shores of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, last year the Army Corps of Engineers observed that half of the archaeological sites it documented in 1982 have vanished.  These places were claimed by the rising seas, a unique irony given the battle against petroleum drilling on the Refuge that has now made ANWR a household name.

Landscape surrounding the “stone lady,” a culturally significant property to the Yup’ik on the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo: Brian R. Turner)

Not surprisingly, federal funding for any proactive survey of our public lands is at a record low.  Heritage professionals in National Parks, Forests, and Wildlife Refuges around the country must be exceptionally resourceful with limited budgets, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Alaska.  The Fish and Wildlife Service, for instance, employs just one (very dedicated) archaeologist to oversee more than 78 million acres of public land.

Not all the news is dire.  Though rare, partnerships with Native communities, museums, and volunteers have been essential.  The Kodiak Island National Wildlife Refuge has documented more than 1000 human habitation sites thanks to help from the very inspirational staff at the Alutiiq Museum.  The museum also runs a community archaeology program that works with locals on Kodiak, and youth in particular, and has helped foster a sense of community identity and pride.  Another successful federal policy on Alaska public lands has been permitting access to public lands for subsistence hunting and food gathering which is critical for the survival of traditional ecological knowledge.

As anyone who has visited Alaska is well aware, the state’s size and the resourcefulness of its people make it undoubtedly unique.  And, though it may be often overlooked by those who visit the state expecting the purity of an “untrammeled” wilderness, history worthy of preservation abounds.

Brian R. Turner is a Regional Attorney at the Western Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.