History and Physical Geography of the Copper River Valley

The Copper River Valley encompasses approximately 20,649 square miles about 150 miles east of Anchorage. The Copper River, one of the major rivers on the continent, has its headwaters at the base of the Wrangell Mountains and dissects the region, flowing 250 miles to the Gulf of Alaska near Cordova.

In the 2000 census, the region had a population of 3,120 up from 2,569 in 1990. The major population centers are focused in the Glennallen, Copper Center and Kenny Lake communities which are situated near the junctions of major highways or with access to recreational resources. They are also the major shopping and service centers for the area. Each of these communities has approximately 500 persons in their loosely defined boundaries.

Glennallen is the major commerce and administrative center, with major medical services, a library, the region’s largest two schools, and the campuses of Alaska Bible College and Prince William Sound Community College. The Copper River School District and Ahtna, Inc have offices in Glennallen, along with the Bureau of Land Management, Alaska Department of Labor & Workforce Development - Glennallen Job Center, Alaska State Troopers, and Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Copper Valley Development Association offices are just south of Glennallen in the community of Tazlina, as are the headquarters for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Division of Forestry and the main maintenance facility for the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. Copper River Native Association and the National Park Service have their main offices in Copper Center.
Kenny Lake is the agricultural center; hay, pork, beef, vegetables and bedding plants are the major commercial products; much of the produce is sold in Valdez, at a Farmer’s Market in Copper Center and local subscription buyers. A limited amount of hay is sold elsewhere. Kenny Lake has a K-12 school, public library, two community halls, a sawmill and lumber business, feed supplier, and construction companies.
Other smaller communities in the regional are Tolsona, Nelchina/Mendeltna, Gulkana, Gakona, Sourdough, Paxson, Chistochina, Lake Louise, Slana/Nabesna, Chisana, Eureka, Mentasta Lake, Tonsina, Copperville, Tazlina, Chitina, Willow Creek, and McCarthy/Kennicott. Many are small and offer a remote village lifestyle, with subsistence activities supplementing livelihoods.

History of the Copper Valley

     Traditionally, the Ahtna Athabaskan Natives occupied most of the upper Copper Valley; "Ahtna" is the Athabaskan name for the Copper River. Most settlements were either fish camps or winter "villages" along the river, or upland hunting and trapping camps.
     The Kennecott Copper Company developed the mine and built the railroad between Cordova and Kennecott/McCarthy, which was active from 1910 until it shut down in 1938; it has now become a National Historic Landmark managed by the National Park Service.
     During the gold rushes in 1898 and 1899 the Copper Basin was a staging area for thousands of prospectors traveling to the interior Alaska; hundreds wintered at Copper Center.
     Perhaps the greatest social and economic impact to this region occurred with the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the mid 1970’s. Many small settlements were built through the Copper Valley to accommodate the pipeline workers and their families, many of whom remained after construction was completed.

Physical Geography of Copper Valley

     The Copper Valley has a sub-arctic continental climate, with long cold winters and relatively warm summers. Winter temperatures range from 40 to -65?F, and in the summer between 60 and 90?F. The area has one of the drier climates in the State, with mean annual precipitation ranging from 8-17 inches across the basin. The annual snowfall is 47-49 inches, and snow is on the ground an average of 180 days per year. There is almost 24 hours of daylight from May until July. On the shortest day of the year, December 22, there are just less than 5 hours of direct sun, with dusk and dawn adding up to an hour of additional light.
Geology and Topography
     The region is rimmed by the Alaska, Talkeetna and Chugach Ranges, and includes the Wrangell and St. Elias Mountain Range, which has nine of the 16 highest mountain peaks in North America. Mt. Wrangell is an active volcano and still has steam venting from near its summit. The Denali Fault and several other minor faults dissect the region. On November 3, 2002, a 7.9 magnitude earthquake, the largest in the world that year, shook the region, severely damaging some 28 miles of highway, local airstrips and houses.
     During one or more early Pleistocene glaciations (35,000 to 9,000 years ago), glaciers from the surrounding mountains covered the entire basin floor. However, the last glacial advance left large areas of the basin ice-free. During periods of each major glaciations, ice dammed the channel of the Copper River through the Chugach Mountains forming a large proglacial lake in the central basin. Lacustrine or lake-derived sediments partially buried older glacial features. Over time, the lake level fluctuated widely, and eventually drained completely about 9,000 years ago. There are broad, nearly level terraces that extend for several miles on either side of the Copper River and its tributaries consisting of these clayey lacustrine sediments.
     Following retreat of the glaciers and drainage of the lake, permafrost began to form in these fine textured lacustrine and glacial deposits. Rivers began to incise canyons in these sediments, and loess began to accumulate in proximity to major drainages. Away from the river canyons and above the terraces the landscape is dominated by low relief morainal hills and extensive till plains formed from glacially deposited materials.
Data obtained by USDA and NPS Geologists



     Permafrost underlies the entire valley at varying depths except on flood plains and under lakes; its depth and ice content varies widely. Although not extensive near the soil surface, massive ice wedges and lenses do occur in the subsoil in some areas. A perched water table and saturated conditions are common above the permafrost during the summer due to restricted drainage.
     The fire history of the site and the thickness of the insulating organic layer on the soil surface controls the depth to permafrost and water table. Disturbance of the organic layer usually results in increased soil temperatures and a lowering of the permafrost level. As permafrost thaws, a large volume of water is released. The occurrence of permafrost requires special consideration when selecting lands for clearing and agriculture and during construction of roads and buildings.
Data obtained by USDA "Soil Survey of Copper River Area, Alaska."
Hydrology and Water
     The major tributaries of the Copper River within the area are the Slana, Gakona, Gulkana, Tazlina, Klutina, Tonsina, and Chitina Rivers. Except for the Slana and Gulkana, all major rivers are glacial in origin. These rivers are characterized by steep gradients, braided floodplains, and high volumes of suspended sediments. Several mineralized springs, locally referred to as mud volcanoes, occur within 15 miles of Glennallen. Mud volcanoes are cone-shaped mounds of silt and clay from which mud, gas and mineralized water have been discharged.
     There has been little documentation of the surface and groundwater sources in the area and their quantity and quality for drinking water and other uses; well log data are limited.
Subsurface water throughout much of the area is under artesian pressure beneath fine-grained material and/or permafrost. Water availability and quality varies dramatically throughout the region. Some of the Kenny Lake area has water at extremely deep levels; Glennallen water is highly mineralized and sometimes iron-rich. Wells drilled in Glennallen, Gulkana, and Gakona have produced water that is somewhat saline.
There are multiple lakes with potable water in the region, but their accessibility, ownership and use concerns, organizational capacities to develop their use, and cost of capita, operation, and maintenance need to be considered for long term viability.


Forest Ecosystems and Native Vegetation

     The Copper Valley is an extensively forested area. Forest types on productive well-drained sites include aspen, white spruce, mixed white spruce-aspen, and mixed white spruce-balsam poplar. In the southern end of the region, mixed stands of white spruce-paper birch can be found. Stunted black spruce and white spruce forests of low productivity occur on north facing slopes and other cold, wet sites with shallow permafrost. Seasonally flooded river wash on the floodplains of major rivers supports dense alder shrub. Willow and heath shrub occupy bogs, fens, and narrow drainages. Wet sedge meadows are common on the margins of lakes and ponds. Steppe vegetation, characteristic of semi-arid areas elsewhere in northeastern Asia and northwestern North America is found on steep south-facing terrace escarpments.

     The Copper Valley has a long history of frequent wild fires. Between 1900 and 1950, an average of 10,000 acres burned annually, although this average has been reduced with improved fire protection measures; an uncontrolled fire in the National Park in the summer of 2009 burned over 54,000 acres. High intensity crown fires that typically kill entire stands characterize the natural fire regime. Following forest fires, willow shrub dominates most sites until eventually replaced by forest vegetation. Stands are then replaced through natural regeneration.
     Common berries found in the Copper Valley are low and high bush cranberries, raspberries, rosehips, low bush blueberry, crowberries and currants.
     The diversity of the landforms, vegetation types and abundance of streams and wetlands of the Copper River Area provide habitat for a wide variety of Alaska’s game and non-game mammals and birds. It is home to moose, caribou, fox, coyote, wolf, wolverine, lynx, hare, porcupine, bison and black and brown bears. Moose, the most important big game animal in the area, are found throughout the Copper Valley. They are common at higher elevations outside the area in the summer and fall and concentrate along the rivers at lower elevations in winter. The winter range and calving grounds of the Nelchina caribou herd are at higher elevations north and east of the area. Occasional caribou wander into the lower elevation forests. The Chitina bison herd inhabits the area between the Cheshnina and Nadina rivers on the east side of the Copper River. Many of the terraces and escarpments in this area are heavily grazed in summer and fall. Dall sheep and mountain goats are found in the Wrangell and Chugach Mountains adjacent to the area. They are an important sport game in the Wrangell St. Elias National Preserve.
Both black bears and grizzly bears are in the area. Black bears intensively utilize the floodplains and stream terraces along the Copper, Klutina, and other major rivers. Grizzly bears occur throughout the uplands, and concentrate along the Tonsina and other rivers and streams when spawning salmon are present. Among the more important furbearers in the area are coyote, red fox, martin, mink, lynx, muskrat, and beaver. Porcupines are common and snowshoe hare populations are cyclical.
     Population levels are determined by the stage of vegetative succession, interspersion of vegetation types and other habitat features, seasonal animal migrations, hunting and trapping pressure, and other factors. Human uses of area wildlife include subsistence harvesting, trapping, and sport hunting.
     Approximately 135 species of birds are summer residents of Interior Alaska; another 3 dozen or so are spring-fall migrants or occasional visitors to the region. (Armstrong 1980) Many of these birds can be found in suitable habitats in the Copper Valley. A variety of waterfowl, including Trumpeter Swans, nest in the area and utilize local lakes and ponds for rearing young and staging during their migration. Bald Eagles nest and fish along the major rivers. Spruce Grouse are common in spruce forests throughout the area.
Fish Resources
     The Copper River and tributaries are spawning and rearing habitat for six species of anadramous fish. Salmon was probably one of the most important food resources of the Ahtna people, and it remains an important part of the diet of Copper Basin residents. Because of their long upstream journey, the Copper River salmon store up large fat reserves to sustain them, making them greatly valued for their high oil content. More information on the local fishery: http://www.sf.adfg.state.ak.us/Management/Areas.cfm/FA/copperSusitna.overview
Based on escapement and harvest data, an average of 1 to 3million salmon return to the Copper River annually. From 2003 through 2007, an average of 1.39 million sockeye (reds), 38,000 Chinook, (kings), and 306,000 coho (silvers) were caught commercially near the mouth, and about 800,000 salmon escaped upstream to spawn each year. On average, Alaskans harvested 180,000 sockeye, 6,000 Chinook and 2,700 coho in dipnets and fishwheels in the Copper River. About 8,500 residents participate in the fishery near Chitina.
     The river and lake systems in the area support numerous species of fish including rainbow trout, Dolly Varden, whitefish, turbot, grayling, steelhead and northern pike.
Land and Land Ownership
     Over the last two decades, Alaska has experienced tremendous changes in land ownership and management. Many areas previously under federal management with have been conveyed under ANCSA to the State of Alaska, University of Alaska and Native Villages, Corporations and individuals; conveyances are expected to be completed by 2010. In 1980, the Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve was formed and includes 1.2 million acres of private in holdings. The largest landowners are, in ascending order, the National Park Service (12 million acres), Ahtna, Inc., the State of Alaska and the Bureau of Land Management, (5.5 million acres).

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