Guide Use Areas

Back when I was an Alaskan resident hunter I always wondered how guides thought they owned all of the land especially in most of the areas I hunted and particularly on the Alaska Peninsula.  When I became a guide I found out that they actually didn’t own any land except maybe the land their base camp was on.

During my guiding years I was frequently asked by clients about the status of the land that we were hunting on.  I’m sure that most of them had heard about all the trouble that guides had and continued to have with the ever changing land access.   I have also been asked about this by a few of my blog subscribers so I thought this would be a good time to cover the brief history of guide areas in Alaska, as I observed it as an owner of a guide operation.

The majestic Wrangell Mountains. I have always loved this photo of the upper Canyon Creek Glacier area. This was the heart of our Wrangell Mountain guide area.

The majestic Wrangell Mountains. I have always loved this photo of the upper Canyon Creek Glacier area. This was the heart of our Wrangell Mountain guide area.

Alaska became a state in 1959.  It is the largest of the fifty states covering a little over 586,000 square land miles which is over twice the size of Texas, the second largest state.  The Federal government owns or controls around 65% of that mass.  The National Park Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management oversee these federal lands.  The State controls about 24% of the land and is managed by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.  The Native Corporations own and control about 10% leaving only 1% owned by private individuals.

In December 1971 President Richard Nixon signed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA).  It gave 12 Native Corporations 44 million acres of land and $962,000,000.  They had three years to select the land and eleven years to get the land conveyed. 

In 1973 the Alaska State Legislature created the Guide Licensing and Control Board, or as the guides still call it, the “Guide Board.”  They were to regulate the guide licensing process, clean up any ethics violations and provide a system to assign hunting areas to Registered Guides.  During the Territorial and early Statehood days with the small number of guides many of them were basically guiding wherever they wanted.  Some would use mining claims, fish allotments, grazing leases and the Homestead Act to obtain land to build camps or cabins on while others just built their camps wherever they chose.  Alaska is so vast with very few if any Federal agents to keep check on the land.  These camps or cabins would become known as trespass cabins.  There are many of those still in existence today.  As the number of guides increased so did the number of complaints of too many guides in one area.  The Guide Board came up with a plan or as I have read in a couple of articles, a scheme, to make all the areas “exclusive guide areas” with one guide per area.  They wanted to eliminate as much of the joint use areas as possible.  They started with three of the twenty-six designated Alaska game management units with a goal of doing all of them.  This only gave guides the right to guide hunters in that area but no land ownership.

They were making progress but ANCSA was causing a problem and if that wasn’t enough President Jimmy Carter in 1980 signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) which not only locked up millions of acres for Parks it also threw subsistence into the equation.  The Board had their hands full.

In the early 80’s Brent Jones, a friend and taxidermist, obtained his Assistant Guide license and guided for Mike Branham, Steve Black and Dwight Felmlee.  He obtained his Registered Guide license in December 1983.  I retired from the Air Force in March 1983 and with my Assistant Guide license guided that spring for Tony Lee and then Rich Guthrie and Tracy Vrem that fall.  That December right after Brent became a Registered Guide we formed AAA Alaskan Outfitters. 

Now all we needed to do was obtain some areas to hunt.  Brent had already been looking at a couple areas on the Alaska Peninsula that were possibly for sale.  Since I had been flown out by Ken Bunch for six different sheep and moose hunts, I knew him fairly well and knew that his Wrangell Mountain guide area had been shut down by ANILCA but was later classified as a Preserve and could be hunted so I contacted him.  We ended up with an agreement with Ken to purchase his area.  It was now up to the Guide Board to transfer the area to Brent since he was the only Registered Guide for AAA Alaskan Outfitters.

Can’t beat this for beauty. Big Bend Lakes in the Wrangell Mountains, AAA’s first guide use area.

Can’t beat this for beauty. Big Bend Lakes in the Wrangell Mountains, AAA’s first guide use area.

Back then most guide areas sold for somewhere between $100,000 and $200,000 depending on what improvements were in the area.  You could not sell the area just the improvements and only for a fair market value.  If no other problems were found, the Board would transfer the hunting area to you.  After operating for ten years or so the Guide Board became known as the “good ol boys.”  Since I had just retired from the Air Force no one knew me but being a taxidermist, Brent knew and was friends with many guides who had been in the business for some time.  We were told that would help.  In early 1984, Brent submitted the paperwork to transfer Ken’s area at the spring Guide Board meeting.  Any guide who had any interest in that area was present.  Since some of the area around Ken’s area was now Park and many of the guides had lost their areas because of that, there were numerous claims.  The Board had a map of the area and let Ken Bunch draw his area lines.  There were at least four other guides there that made claims for all or part of that area.  After hours of discussion anyone with conflict had to draw their lines along Ken’s lines without any overlap.  Ken was good friends with a couple of the Board members, Chuck Weir being a very close friend, so Brent was awarded the area.  We now had our first area and our first go at the Guide Board.  The area was Federal land controlled by the National Park service. 

Brent and me in 1984 at our Bryson Bar base camp in the Wrangell’s. Back in the day. I had just turned 40. We look like kids.

Brent and me in 1984 at our Bryson Bar base camp in the Wrangell’s. Back in the day. I had just turned 40. We look like kids.

In the spring of ’86, after three years as an Assistant Guide I obtained my Registered Guide license.  In ‘87 Brent and I negotiated deals with Tony Lee for his Western Alaska area and with Ken Oldham for his Alaska Peninsula area.  Tony and I were placed on the fall Board meeting schedule and Ken and Brent were scheduled for the spring of ’88 meeting.  During the fall meeting the Board was running behind schedule so the only thing that Tony and I accomplished was getting all the joint use lines separated to make “four exclusive guide areas.”  The transfer was moved to the spring ’88 meeting.

At the ’88 spring Guide Board meeting Ken Oldham’s Dog Salmon area was transferred to Brent.  We now had two areas.  This area was also Federal land and controlled by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.  Because of a licensing issue that Tony Lee had, the Board refused to transfer the area and moved us again to the following fall meeting.

The beautiful Dog Salmon River valley on the Alaska Peninsula. Photo was taken from the knoll behind the Dog Salmon River base camp by Jerry Starkey one of AAA’s guides.

The beautiful Dog Salmon River valley on the Alaska Peninsula. Photo was taken from the knoll behind the Dog Salmon River base camp by Jerry Starkey one of AAA’s guides.

A fairly recent photo of the Dog Salmon River base camp. You can see the salmon in the lower right side of the photo.

A fairly recent photo of the Dog Salmon River base camp. You can see the salmon in the lower right side of the photo.

October 21, 1988 the Supreme Court of Alaska handed down a decision on the Owsichek vs State of Alaska, Guide Licensing and Control Board lawsuit in favor of Kenneth Owsichek declaring “exclusive guide areas” unconstitutional.  Whoa, that was a shock.  Most of us didn’t see that coming.  In 1979 Ken Owsichek , a Registered Guide, stated that he had spent $300,000 building a lodge in an area and applied to the Guide Board for that “guide use area.”  There were already guides assigned in that area so the Guide Board denied his application for that area but gave him another area that he didn’t want, so he sued them.  The case made it all the way to the Alaska Supreme Court.  Whoa again, after spending over $200,000 we have nothing!  This couldn’t be right!  But it was.  The shockwave was felt all through the guide industry.  Whether you agree with that Court decision or not; in my opinion, that was the worst thing that could have happened to the State game populations, resident hunters and the guide industry.

The initial response from the Federal agencies was fairly quick and was “If the State can’t control the guides on their land we can on our lands and we will.”  Thank you Jesus!  Saved!  Initially both the Federal Park Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Service kept the assigned guides in their assigned areas and then started a long process to assign guides through a system that they each developed which was way more detailed than the Guide Boards’ system.  It was mainly done with the help of many participating guides.  Brent and I were very active in the process.  Daryl Lons was the US Fish and Wildlife representative that was instrumental in setting up the system which is in place today with of course a few changes.  Becky Kaiser was the initial Park Service representative.  She was very helpful also. 

AAA Alaskan Outfitters was the first Concessioner in the Wrangell St. Elise Park/Preserve so we were in good shape in the Wrangell’s.  After the new system was implemented by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Brent was awarded our old Alaska Peninsula area which was now divided into three areas, which is the maximum that each guide can have.  His prospectus was used as an example on how to prepare one for applying for a Federal area on US Fish and Wildlife controlled lands.

Otter Lake in our Western Alaska area. You can see the “super cub” across the lake tied down by the strip. That was the same place where the cub was blown into the lake.

Otter Lake in our Western Alaska area. You can see the “super cub” across the lake tied down by the strip. That was the same place where the cub was blown into the lake.

The Otter Lake base camp. This was our only State land guide use area.

The Otter Lake base camp. This was our only State land guide use area.

In my opinion the State land areas were overrun by the number of new guides.  We received a letter from the Guide Board informing us about the Owsichek Decision and that they would not be able to award me Tony’s State land use area.  We still went ahead and paid Tony for his camp and gear.  In the fall of ’88 I was the only guide in that area.  The following year there were six guides registered in that area and before I retired there were over twenty.  It was a big area but forget basic wildlife management.  I was taking six moose hunters per season just as Tony had taken over the years.  But I had heard that two of the guides around me were taking 20+.  I was there for the next seventeen years and watched the moose and bear populations drop to an all-time low.  The main thing that saved us was the growing population of the Mulchatna Caribou herd but that crashed in 2006, the year after I retired.

In our Cold Bay area we had been working with Steve Black who kept telling us he was getting out of the guide business.  After the Owsichek Decision we contacted the King Cove Native Corporation and worked a deal out with them to hunt on their newly conveyed native lands around Cold Bay.  That worked out until we gave up that area in 1999.

Looking up the right-hand valley of the Joshua Green River in the area we hunted near Cold Bay. This was actually the first area we hunted as AAA in the spring of ‘84.

Looking up the right-hand valley of the Joshua Green River in the area we hunted near Cold Bay. This was actually the first area we hunted as AAA in the spring of ‘84.

Hunting from the Zodiac in the Cold bay area. A great brown bear area.

Hunting from the Zodiac in the Cold bay area. A great brown bear area.

Most Native Corporations were actively seeking guides to hunt their lands limiting it to one guide.  It was expensive but you had a guaranteed hunting area that you could manage.

Currently, all the Federal and Native Lands are regulated with one guide per area.  The State land has a system where you register  for guide use areas and has no limit for guides per area just the rule that each guide can only have three areas.

Another wonderful photo of the Dog Salmon River valley. This is the only area that AAA currently hunts. Contact Brent to experience the beauty of Alaska and a hunt of a lifetime

Another wonderful photo of the Dog Salmon River valley. This is the only area that AAA currently hunts. Contact Brent to experience the beauty of Alaska and a hunt of a lifetime

If you are planning a hunt in Alaska make sure you know if the guide you select is hunting on State or Federal land.  It could make a big difference on the success of your hunt.