Yukonomist: Comparing the incomparable

Yukonomist Keith Halliday

We are lucky to have two world-class UNESCO-recognized parks on our doorstep: Kluane and Glacier Bay.

They are very different environments. One is famous for humpback whales and sea otters while visitors look for grizzlies and mountain sheep in the other.

They also offer very different economic models. Parks have a higher mission than merely fostering economic activity, but they do not exist in isolation from society. Parks hold great potential in our quest for a northern economy that is sustainable, in both the financial and environmental senses. And parks in a democracy rely ultimately on voter support for their budgets and protective regulations.

So let’s compare the two parks from an economic point of view, looking at their attractions, brands, indigenous engagement, service models and economic results.

We will start with results and work back from there to explain the differences.

Park results are particularly tricky to measure. It is difficult to come by reliable figures on the gross domestic product generated in the Alaska panhandle by Glacier Bay or in the Yukon by Kluane.

Visitor numbers are a guide, but a very rough one. In the 2019-20 fiscal, the last summer season before the pandemic, Parks Canada reported attendance of 29,055 for Kluane. The National Parks Service reported 672,087 for Glacier Bay.

However, about four-fifths of Glacier Bay visitors arrive by cruise ship and do not set foot on land. And daytrippers to Kluane will recall they did not have to register, and are not included in Kluane’s number.

Nonetheless, one can say that over the last twenty years around 10 million people have experienced Glacier Bay and made a contribution to the upkeep of the park, either directly or through their cruise ship tickets. Whether they retained what they saw about climate change and retreating glaciers, or became bigger supporters of national parks, is a tougher question.

Kluane, on the other hand, is experienced by far fewer people. For us locals, this is one of the magic things about Kluane. You can go on a spectacular hike, on a well-marked trail at the height of tourist season, and see no one at all. It’s like being an oligarch strolling your private mountain range.

In terms of attractions, I find it impossible to rank the parks. Both have jaw-dropping mountains and glaciers. Who is to say if watching humpback whales and sea otters is more or less uplifting for your soul than watching grizzlies and mountain sheep?

But from a crass marketing point of view, Glacier Bay has an in-built advantage: whales. People love whales, as the cruise ship companies know very well. Nothing looks as good on a brochure as charismatic megafauna. And the rich marine environment means you are practically guaranteed to see whales from your cruise ship. If you paddle, it’s hard to avoid seeing hundreds of sea otters up close.

The grizzlies and mountain sheep of Kluane are more coy.

The two parks also differ in brand. John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, first visited in 1879 and used his enormous influence in the then-new parks movement to position Glacier Bay in the American popular imagination. He was aided in this by ecologist William S. Cooper and early National Geographic editor Eliza Scidmore. Between them, Glacier Bay is as close to a household name in national parks as a park can be (megastar Yosemite Park perhaps excepted).

No Canadian Muir or Scidmore has so far succeeded in planting the much newer Kluane Park in the Canadian psyche in the same way.

In terms of indigenous engagement, both parks are making serious efforts to address their colonial roots. In both countries, the 20th century concept of the park required excluding indigenous people and banning traditional harvesting activities. The National Parks Service has been working hard with the Huna Tlingit, including a spectacular new longhouse and an arrangement to allow seabird egg harvesting again. Parks Canada is working with both the Kluane as well as Champagne and Aishihik First Nations.

Where the parks differ most is in their service models for visitors. Glacier Bay offers a full pyramid of options. At the base are the 80 percent who visit by cruise ship. This is relatively economical – Alaska cruises can be less than $600 per person on sale – and requires no physical effort or hardship. In the middle are those who fly on Alaska Airlines or take the state ferry to Gustavus. They can camp in the park or stay in the park’s lodge before taking a day boat tour past the whales to the glaciers. Guide-book author David Bahr estimates around one percent of visitors don their PFDs and rain gear and paddle the park. At the very top of the pyramid are the people who leave their private jets at Gustavus Airport while visiting a high-end lodge.

Kluane has a more stripped-down product offering. The main offering is self-guided hikes, either day trips or overnighters. It is possible to get a boat tour of Kathleen Lake, do a rafting trip on the Alsek, or jump in a plane for a flightseeing trip to Mount Logan. But relatively small numbers of visitors do these activities.

So what does all this mean?

Kluane can’t be Glacier Bay. It doesn’t have Muir, a century of National Geographic publicity and cruise ships can’t reach it. Nor, perhaps, would we want that.

But what about stealing the idea of Glacier Bay’s lodge? Picture a hotel owned and run by local First Nations on Kathleen Lake, employing local people with a bigger suite of tours and activities.

I suspect it would be a cash cow, and would also expose many more visitors to the wonders of Kluane Park and First Nations culture.

Such an idea may be far in the future. In the meantime, we Yukoners can enjoy a UNESCO World Heritage site while barely having to share it at all.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist, author of the Aurore of the Yukon youth adventure novels and co-host of the Klondike Gold Rush History podcast. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.