For years, Katmai National Park has had a problem with "bear jams." On June 30, the park opened a new, permanent, elevated bridge aimed at fixing the problem for good.
Every year, thousands of visitors travel to Katmai, only to have their excursions in the park halted for hours at a time by "bear jams" – when bears came near the seasonal, floating bridge that crossed Brooks River.
On June 30, Katmai held an opening ceremony for a new, permanent, elevated bridge aimed at fixing the bear jam problem for good.
“Even the bears are here to hear what’s going on,” laughed Alaska Parks Superintendent Mark Sturm at the ribbon cutting ceremony for the new Brooks River bridge in Katmai National Park and Preserve.
Bear 132 and her yearling cub ambled below one of the brand new platforms where the crowd was gathered, mother and cub making their way to the edge of the river, then back again.
“Who [else] can have a ribbon cutting ceremony with grizzlies within feet of the audience,” marveled Bert Frost, Alaska’s National Park Service director, during his remarks at the ceremony.
Other speakers included Jason Whiting, representing Katmailand; Sheila Ring, from the Katmai Conservancy; and Lucy Murfitt, Deputy Chief Counsel on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee.
The original guest list for the ceremony, which was set to take place the day before, included Alaska Senators Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski, Congressman Don Young, and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, among others. Heavy fog in King Salmon meant their planes couldn't land and pushed back the ceremony until Sunday morning.
The new bridge was more than a decade in the planning and cost $6 million dollars. After over 7 months of construction, it was completed in May of 2019.
The grey and brown crossing stretches 1,200 feet over the Brooks River, strikingly angular against the muted greens and grays of the surrounding landscape. It features platforms where visitors can stop and watch bears, as well as 4 new permanent bear cams.
Many of the speakers at the ceremony commented on the feat of cooperation and persistence that led to the completion of the bridge project.
“From the beginning, the National Park Service had two missions,” said Frost. “The first was to protect the resources, and the second is to ensure for visitor enjoyment. Coming here and seeing how people can move effortlessly above the bears because of the bridge, and see the landscape, engaging in a way you never could before is the essence of what the founders of the National Park Service [envisioned].”
However, the new bridge and platforms are not a silver bullet.
“Visitation is growing,” Sturm commented. “People know about this place and they want to see it. We need to be careful when we think about the future of how we manage this place and understand that we need to not impact the community or the abundance of life that people enjoy here.”
And indeed, despite the opening of the new bridge and the positive changes that it brings, Katmai National Park and Preserve still struggles with capacity issues.
Kristen Ulery, Katmai’s lead interpretive ranger, told me the original idea behind the bridge was that just one ranger would manage it, freeing up another ranger to help with crowd management at the park. But with more people visiting Katmai every year, it’s becoming clear that that plan isn’t feasible. During the peak season of July, visitors at Katmai can wait for over 2 hours to see main attraction sites like Brooks Falls.
All this to say, the new Brooks River Bridge is a huge boon for the park, but isn’t the end of the road for development and preservation. In fact, this is just the first phase of a planned bridge system that will further lessen the human footprint on the park, and keep fulfilling that original National Park Service mission: Protect the resources while letting people revel in its beauty.
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