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Charles Sheldon and the Creation of Denali National Park - B&C Impact Series

How one member of the Boone and Crockett Club (almost) single-handedly established Denali National Park


On the shelves of the Boone and Crockett Club’s library at their Missoula, Montana, headquarters sits a simple canvas and leather-bound book about an inch thick. On its spine is printed “Mount Mckinley National Park” in gold letters. Anyone who picks up this piece of history will find that, sometime in the last century, Boone and Crockett member C. Hart Merriam compiled all the maps, articles, letters, and manuscripts that he could find on the creation of Mount McKinley National Park—what we now call Denali. 

The non-descript book reveals that Boone and Crockett Club member Charles Sheldon was the driving force behind protecting the area in and around Denali, as both a refuge for wildlife and an increasingly urban society. Numerous times, Sheldon called on the Boone and Crockett Club and its network of influential members to support his vision, which they did. On paper, it might look as though it only took Charles Sheldon a couple years to protect Denali. In reality, his quest lasted the better part of a decade. In painstaking detail, both Merriam and Sheldon recount years of roller coaster politics, networking, and influencing that eventually protected more than 2.1 million acres in and around Denali. It’s one heck of a ride. Buckle up. 

Love at First Sight

Charles Sheldon was a Yale-educated engineer who made some smart investments in mining and was able to retire at the ripe old age of 36. He then devoted his time and his money to exploration, hunting, and adventure—all of which centered on mountain sheep. His passion for studying them took him to the deserts of Mexico and north to the Yukon and to Denali. His travels in 1904 and 1905 around the Yukon are meticulously recorded in Wilderness of the Upper Yukon, which are part of the B&C Classics Series

In 1906, Sheldon switched his sights to Alaska, specifically the Tanana River and the shrouded peaks of the Alaska Range. Alongside trusted packer Harry Karstens, Sheldon’s forays would be one of the first expeditions into that region. Over the years, Karstens and Sheldon would become good friends, and Karstens would become the Park's first superintendent from 1921 to 1928. Karstens was also one of four men who first summited Denali on June 7, 1913. 

Harry Karstens and Jack Haydon spread out the specimens to dry, September 2, 1906, preparing to pack them out. From Sheldon's book, The Wilderness of Denali.


Sheldon explored Denali for two years, building a cabin, hunting grizzly bears and sheep, exploring ice caves, and documenting, nearly daily, his discoveries in this relatively unexplored region. In the second chapter of his book The Wilderness of Denali, just moments after he stepped foot at the base of North America’s tallest peak, he captured the moment as only Sheldon could. “Alone in an unknown wilderness hundreds of miles from civilization and high on one of the world's most imposing mountains, I was deeply moved by the stupendous mass of the great upheaval, the vast extent of the wild areas below, the chaos of the unfinished surface is still in process of moulding, and by the crash and roar of the mighty avalanches.”

It was then that Sheldon realized that “at an appropriate time in the future,” the area should be set aside as a national park. With this in mind, Sheldon set out to map the physical boundaries of a future park. In 1908, Sheldon’s adventures in Denali came to an end, and a new adventure would begin in the halls of Congress.  

Timing Is Everything 

Sheldon was no stranger to the Boone and Crockett Club, becoming a member in 1903 and serving on the Boone and Crockett Club’s Game Preservation Committee. During his time on the committee, various Club members would mention the need for a game preserve in Alaska. Sheldon would respond that he knew just the place along the north slope of Mount McKinley, but he refrained from pursuing any sort of specific designation. 

Then in 1915, the Alaska Railway began to penetrate the area that Sheldon hoped would someday be set aside. The time had finally come, and Sheldon was religious in his efforts to make the park a reality.  

First and foremost, Sheldon knew he needed the approval of the citizens of Alaska. “I believe that the time had arrived to show the Alaskans the advantages which such a Park would bring to them,” he recalled. He first pitched the idea to George Bird Grinnell, influential member and co-founder of the Boone and Crockett Club. In the fall of 1915, Sheldon called together the game preservation committee. They discussed his idea of a park and approved.

On December 13 at a dinner hosted by Madison Grant, Sheldon presented his entire plan before the executive committee of the Boone and Crockett Club. It received their formal endorsement. Two days later, Sheldon wrote to Stephen Mather, assistant to the Secretary of Interior in charge of the national parks and B&C member. Mather wanted to know more. 

Two weeks later, Sheldon was still in Washington pitching his idea to members of the Geological Survey and the Bureau of Fisheries. Nearly all were in support. At the Boone and Crockett Club’s annual dinner on January 6, Sheldon presented his vision and recalled, “Col. Roosevelt spoke vigorously in favor of it. It was enthusiastically endorsed in a formal resolution in behalf of it past.”

The Politics of a Park 

For Sheldon, the entirety of 1916 was a political chess match, and he would continually make concessions to achieve his goal. Sheldon pushed for the park to be called Denali, which roughly translated means “the high one,” as it was the original name given to it by local tribes. The name was rejected in favor of Mount McKinley. Sheldon went along with it for fear of torpedoing the entire idea.

Proposed boundaries in the early days. Sheldon's boundary, shaded in orange, is very close to the boundary that was adopted when the park was established in 1917 at 1.6 million acres.

In the summer of 1916, there were hearings, testimony, and amendments. Congressional procedures (and some oversights) hindered progress. In the fall, Sheldon personally went to Washington to lobby on behalf of his idea. In September, the bill hit a snag. It was not practice to push through more than two national park bills in one year. Denali was competing against a proposed Sawtooth National Park in Idaho, Mt. Lassen National Park in California, and Grand Canyon.  

Mount McKinley and the Alaska Range, circa 1958. Library of Congress.

By January 1917, the bill still had not been passed. Sheldon continued to convince members of the Campfire Club and others to lobby on behalf of the bill. By now, the only chance of getting Denali through the House would be to use the nuclear option, which meant placing it on the unanimous consent calendar where a single objection might block it. Sheldon wrote that he spent the next month interviewing more than 200 Congressman to push it through. 

Finally, on February 20, Senator Pittman told Sheldon that the bill had passed. As evidence of his passion, Sheldon personally transported the bill from the Secretary of the Interior’s office to the White House and delivered it to President Woodrow Wilson who signed it on February 26, 1917. President Wilson then handed the pen over to Sheldon. Soon thereafter, the Boone and Crockett Club hosted a dinner in Washington to celebrate the establishment of Mount McKinley National Park. Aside from two other national military parks, Mount McKinley was the only national park designated in 1917. 

Cover letter from Madison Grant to George Bird Grinnell regarding the history of the establishment of Mt. McKineley National Park
The first page of Grant's manuscript. The full chapter is included in Boone and Crockett Club's sixth Acorn book, Hunting and Conservation, which was released in 1925.

About the Impact series

The Impact series is dedicated to showing how sportsmen, members of the Boone and Crockett Club in particular, saved the wildlife and wild places of the United States. Early members of the Boone and Crockett Club comprised the movers, shakers, and initiators of the American conservation movement. They were hunters, anglers, explorers, lawmakers, soldiers, and above all conservationists. These members established laws that allowed our wildlife resources to flourish. They also protected landscape-scale geologic marvels and American icons like Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Denali, and many, many more. These members may no longer be with us, but their legacy remains. This series aims to honor their accomplishments and remind us of the good work still yet to do.

Impact Facts about Denali National Park and Preserve 

Hunting in Denali 

Key members of the Boone and Crockett Club who helped establish Denali National Park 


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"The wildlife and its habitat cannot speak. So we must and we will."

-Theodore Roosevelt