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Eielson LEEDs by example.


In the early spring of 1924, history was made on the sweeping tundra benches of Copper Mountain in then seven-year-old Mount McKinley National Park. A barnstorming pilot and pioneer by the name of Carl Ben Eielson from the town of Hatton, North Dakota, set out to prove the worth of the airplane to the Alaska Territory through an experimental airmail contract with the United States Postal Service. For an average of $1.75 per flight mile, Eielson was to make 10 flights in a government De Havilland plane from Fairbanks to McGrath, a distance of approximately 275 miles.

Along the way to convincing critics that the airplane could consistently do in three hours what took a team of sled dogs two long weeks, Eielson made the first airplane landing within the boundaries of the nascent national park, on the slopes of Copper Mountain, where a small community of miners and prospectors had sprung up and was anxious to receive correspondence from "outside." A few short months later, while transporting a miner to his claim in this area, Eielson made a teeth-chattering landing on the coarse, glacially-carved gravel bar of the Thorofare River, quite possibly the first gravel bar landing in Alaska's history.

In subsequent years, Eielson made his living further demonstrating the versatility of flight in the territory by ferrying passengers, medical supplies, and news to remote reaches of wilderness. As if this all weren't enough to cement his place in the annals of Alaskan aviation history, Eielson earned the Congressional Medal of Honor in April of 1928 by becoming the first pilot to fly over the North Pole, from Point Barrow, Alaska, to Spitzbergen, Norway. Eielson's final flight came on November 9, 1929, when the altimeter on his Hamilton plane failed him during a rescue mission through a dense curtain of fog, and his plane crashed in coastal Siberia.

Carl Ben Eielson took steps that seemed outrageous and extraordinary to his contemporaries. However, his collective efforts as a pioneer bush pilot helped create a culture of flight that many modern-day Alaskans view as the norm and integrate into their daily lives as pilots, passengers, or just people waiting for their mail.

Over the years, many names in the Eielson story have changed. The Alaska Territory is now our 49th state, Mount McKinley National Park has tripled in size to become Denali National Park and Preserve, and, through a U.S. Senate resolution in 1930 recognizing Eielson's historic landings, Mount Eielson now replaces Copper Mountain on topographic maps.

Directly across the two-mile expanse of the Thorofare River bar, on a bluff blanketed with arctic willow, blueberry, and kinnikinnick, there is a lingering theme. The Eielson name remains in the vanguard, as the National Park Service's newly redesigned Eielson Visitor Center has taken the lead in its own right.

The history of the Eielson Visitor Center is as long and winding as the 66 miles of Denali Park Road one must traverse to arrive there.

Though the single ribbon of road into the park did not extend to Mile 66 until 1932, the site of the current visitor center was on the radar of park officials for a few years prior. The first seven visitors made their way to Mount McKinley National Park in 1922, and by the late 1920s, the National Park Service was planning for a future of increased visitation. Much of the discussion centered around an appropriate location for the construction of a park hotel to accommodate visitors who wished to spend more than a single day experiencing the wilderness surrounding North America's tallest mountain.

Mile 66 was up for consideration in part because it offers the first base to summit view of Mt. McKinley, but also due to the thinking that visitors wouldn't necessarily want to travel all 89 miles of park road to an alternate site at Wonder Lake. In what must have been a raven's nest of bureaucratic red tape, consideration of an appropriate site extended well into the 1930s, and the park concessioner took advantage of the indecision and obtained permission to establish a tent camp at the Mile 66 site. Camp Denali (later Camp Eielson) offered services for day trips and overnight stays and operated for 14 years from 1934 to 1948.


The identity crisis of the Mile 66 site was soon to be resolved with the unveiling of the National Park Service's Mission 66 program, a plan designed to improve infrastructure at parks throughout the country. Ironically, the "66" had nothing to do with the site. Rather, it referred to the year by which Mission 66 projects would be completed, the 50th anniversary of the National Park Service.

In the first version of the park's proposal, nothing was included for the Mile 66 site. After a major revision, though, the location was determined to be of the highest priority, and the new proposal read, "The superlative view of Mt. McKinley and other features of the area merit orientational and interpretational exhibits, and as the location is the midpoint of the concessioner bus tours, the area and building will be utilized heavily."

Thus, the Eielson Visitor Center was born. Construction of a cinderblock building began in the summer of 1958, and the first visitors walked through the doors on July 28, 1960. In 2004, after serving the public for 44 successful seasons, park officials determined that visitation numbers had outgrown the original building, and funds were allocated to demolish and rebuild the facility. The goal was to create a building that accommodated a greater number of visitors while maintaining the wilderness values the park is mandated to protect.

The new and improved Eielson opened for business on June 8, 2008, and a visitor center that almost never was has become something no other National Park Service facility has ever been.

By the time this writing goes to print, the new Eielson Visitor Center in Denali National Park and Preserve will have been officially awarded a platinum certification under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System. Platinum is the highest rating achievable, and Eielson is the first facility designed and funded by the National Park Service to reach this level.


The LEED Green Building Rating System is a program developed and administered by the U.S. Green Building Council, a non-profit organization composed of approximately 15,000 organizations from across the building industry that are committed to the expansion of sustainable building practices. As a national rating system, LEED is a practical tool for those involved in various types of construction to obtain measurable success toward the end of sustainable design. LEED hopefuls are scored based on achievement in six areas integral to environmental and human health: sustainable site development, water efficiency, energy efficiency and the atmosphere, materials selection, indoor environmental quality, and innovation in design. Based on the cumulative score, projects can be awarded a LEED rating of certified, silver, gold, or platinum.

So what exactly makes the Eielson Visitor Center worthy of the platinum plaque that will eventually grace the entrance of the facility? In the bland, impersonal terms of the LEED report card, Eielson aced its final exam. However, the sustainability initiatives undertaken at Eielson go beyond the quantifiable and involve themselves in the experience of the visitor.

For a visitor to Denali National Park and Preserve, the first view of the Eielson Visitor Center comes after a four-hour ride aboard the park's visitor transportation system, an effort that earns LEED credits for serving as an efficient means of access to the site. All park visitors intending to travel more than 15 miles into the park must utilize this means of access. Upon rounding the final, dusty curve at the top of Thorofare Pass and being advised by the driver that the bus is approaching Eielson, a visitor might be inclined to ask, "Where?"

As part of selecting a sustainable site, the new Eielson is set into the hillside with an extremely low profile so that visitors arriving from the east are looking right over its tundra-covered roof at a breathtaking view of Mt. McKinley, 35 miles distant. The building's southern aspect allows for the maximum capture of sunlight to assist in illuminating and heating the building, and natural insulation is provided by the surrounding earth and blanketing tundra vegetation.

Arriving at the bus parking area, our curious visitor might realize that he had too much coffee that morning and rush down the steps to the rest rooms. He would probably not notice that the porous gravel parking lot was left unpaved to allow water to percolate into the soil, reducing erosion and runoff at the site. He might be a bit impressed by the rest room, though. In earning water efficiency credits, Eielson utilizes low-flush toilets, low-flow faucets, and patented Sloan Waterfree Urinals. In the latter, a single unit can save 40,000 gallons of water per year.

Our intrepid visitor has now satisfied his basest needs and is ready to explore the visitor center proper. As he drifts around the room studying the exhibits that exude the stories of the wilderness of Denali, a silent story of sustainability is being told all around him.

Beneath his feet lie EcoSurfaces tiles composed of 100 percent post-consumer tire rubber. The Biofiber countertop he leans on is made of a rapidly renewable resource called wheat-straw and actually contributes negative amounts of greenhouse gases through the life of the product. The air he breathes remains fresh due to the incorporation of low-emitting sealants, paints, and other construction materials, consciously chosen and utilized by the design team. On a grander scale, the building he is exploring is producing the majority of its own power, energy equivalent to what it would take to power his and three other visitors' homes through a combination of hydroelectric and solar sources.

According to Carol Harding, the interpretive planner responsible for developing the message of the new Eielson Visitor Center, the overarching theme of the interpretive product offered at Eielson is "Honoring the Spirit of Place by Understanding and Respecting its Wildness." The interpretive signage and exhibits flirt with the subthemes of preservation of design, come explore, dynamic landscape, ecosystem connections, and people's place in the wilderness. Harding refers to the struggles of creating effective interpretation within the confines of the LEED rating system, but in the end, the message gets through, and the building itself becomes a means of conveying that message.

As visitors spend time considering their visit to Denali, pieces of the sustainability story begin to reveal themselves, and it necessarily becomes the role of the park's west district rangers to interpret the building. A thread of sustainability runs through the formal and informal contacts that park interpreters have with the public. Inside an innovative facility like Eielson, and with its flowing, open floor plan and aesthetics designed to mimic the surrounding landscape, the opportunities for honoring Denali's spirit are plentiful. There is much less buffer between the visitor and the resources they have come to experience, and it is not an insurmountable task to bring a visitor to the point of understanding his or her place in a wilderness like Denali.

Resource advocacy should be the ultimate benchmark for successful interpretation, but admittedly, this can be a difficult prospect to attain. Ingrid Nixon, chief of interpretation at Denali National Park and Preserve, realizes this and is happy that her interpretive staff can use the Eielson Visitor Center as a tool for helping visitors reach the next step in their understanding of park resources. It is not lost on her that from the first conception of the idea of a new visitor center, a story about choices has been unfolding.

In 2006 the National Park Service made the commitment that any new construction taking place in national parks would certify at least at the LEED silver level. In paving the way for Park Service facilities by striving to attain the platinum rating, Nixon says, "We chose to create a building that not only serves the purpose but demonstrates choices that are more earth-friendly and therefore more compatible with the concept of protecting the surrounding landscape."

In its first season of operation, approximately 70,000 visitors boarded shuttle buses bound for Eielson where they witnessed these choices firsthand. With the assistance of a committed staff of interpreters, a state-of-the-art facility, and 6.2 million inspirational acres of wilderness, many of these visitors took a look around and realized that choice is within their reach. With increasing evidence that collective small steps can go a long way in reducing the human contribution to global climate change, it is compelling to see the high-profile demonstration of choices that are more earth friendly.

In walking the walk of sustainability, the new Eielson Visitor Center has perpetuated the pioneer legacy of its barnstorming namesake by becoming the first of its kind to achieve a platinum LEED rating. And it has done so in spite of its extremely remote location. The choice is up to us as to whether design and construction like Eielson's will become the norm in the places we continue to live and work.

FYI Denali National Park

Contact:, 907-683-2294

Fees: The park entrance fee is $10 per person or $20 per vehicle. This fee provides the visitor a 7-day entrance permit

Directions: Denali National Park's headquarters is located along Alaska Route 3, approximately 240 miles north of Anchorage, Alaska, 125 miles south of Fairbanks, and 12 miles south of Healy. Most visitors choose to go to the park between mid-May and mid-September.


Joshua Becker has spent three seasons in Denali as both a bus driver naturalist and a park ranger. He is a returned Peace Corps volunteer, having served in Fiji from 2005 to 2007. Contact Josh at
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Title Annotation:Eielson Visitor Center's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design
Author:Becker, Joshua
Publication:Legacy Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2008
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