National Parks to care for state historic sites in Sitka

Castle Hill, in downtown Sitka, is the best place to take in the full measure of the community’s “cultural landscape.” (Photo courtesy of Alaska Division of Parks)
Castle Hill, in downtown Sitka, is the best place to take in the full measure of the community’s “cultural landscape.” (Photo courtesy of Alaska Division of Parks)

The federal government is stepping in to care for two of Alaska’s most important historic sites, after the legislature cut funding to state parks in Sitka.

The National Park Service calls Castle Hill and Old Sitka “cultural treasures,” and has agreed to take care of the parks at least through the fall.

A third state-owned site, the popular Halibut Point Recreation Area, ultimately may be managed the city.

Sitka National Historical Park superintendent Mary Miller says it’s “ironic” that the park has scaled up storytelling around the Russian colonial presence in Sitka this year, since it’s now going to be taking care of a larger piece of the former colony.

But that’s not the only irony in this agreement. The deal is good only through this fall — October 18. That’s the day in 1867 that Russia formally ceded Alaska to the United States in a flag raising ceremony on Castle Hill, one of two sites in Sitka that the state has decided it can’t afford to operate anymore.

“Those are recognized as significant cultural and historic treasures, really, whose stories overlap with Sitka National Historical Park.”

The other site, known as Old Sitka, is less celebrated than Castle Hill, but its role in the larger story of Alaska is far greater: The destruction of a Russian outpost there by the Sitka Tlingit in 1802 prompted a retaliatory strike by Alexander Baranov two years later, and he would subsequently move the headquarters of the Russian-American Company — and the capital of Russian America — to Sitka.

Modern Sitka is built right on the footprint of the Russian colonial capital, which was built over the historic Tlingit community, with Castle Hill right at its center.

Fitting this story together needs a better vantage point than can be found inside a museum.

“What you start to see, by combining say the Russian Bishop’s House, St. Michael’s, the Blockhouse, Castle Hill, Building 29, the Russian Cemetery — you start to realize the cultural landscape that was here.”

Starting back on July 1, Miller and the National Park crew decided to step in as stewards of to provide stewardship over the cultural landscape. Sitka National Historical Park itself is a major feature of the downtown waterfront. Miller says her staff was positive about folding Castle Hill and Old Sitka into their responsibilities.

“When we talked to the maintenance crew about this — and we’ve got a bigger crew than usual because of extra projects at Sitka National Historical Park — they were actually pretty excited about it. They recognized that taking care of these sites is actually a source of pride, just like it is for taking care of the assets of the regular park.”

The National Park Service is not taking over management of Castle Hill and Old Sitka per se — Miller says it’s more about maintenance. The NPS will remove trash, mow grass, blow leaves, clean trails, and brush out vegetation.

And The National Park Service is not going to be providing these services at the Old Sitka boat launch, or at Halibut Point Recreation Area. Halibut Point, the boat launch, Ft. Rousseau, and the Magoun Islands and Big Bear/Baby Bear state marine parks all went into so-called passive management when the state started its new budget year on July 1.

With the exception of Halibut Point, all of these sites are accessible only by boat, and scarcely require maintenance of any kind. Halibut Point, however, is probably the most popular picnic beach in Sitka. Municipal administrator Mark Gorman told the assembly recently that passive management would likely lead to “public safety issues.”

“It’s very clear to me that with the sudden closure of the state presence in the park that the issue is going to roll up to the city very rapidly — in fact it did on Friday, with people coming and saying, I have a wedding planned there at the end of this week, I can’t get in, who do I talk to?”

Gorman said that city hall was putting together a plan to care for Halibut Point, for the assembly’s review at its next meeting.

Meanwhile the state Division of Parks is continuing to solicit proposals for the permanent care of Sitka’s parks, which were de-funded this spring along with sites in Homer and Valdez.

Despite the excellent overlap with the national park mission in Sitka, superintendent Mary Miller sees her intervention as a stop-gap measure.

“We’re happy to step in, recognizing that the state is in need right now. And I’d like to think that if the tables were turned and that the federal government, for whatever reason, was short of resources, that we could look to the state and that they would step up and help us likewise.”

Miller says the National Park Service will assess how well maintenance is going at Sitka’s state parks this fall, before she seeks additional funding for the program.

KCAW’s Emily Kwong contributed to this story.

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