Cuts to Tongass Nat'l Forest rec budget force cabin closings

Shrinking budgets are forcing officials at Alaska’s national forests to reevaluate their recreation programs.

The recreation budget for the Tongass National Forest in Southeast was cut from $4.1 million in fiscal year 2013 to $3.5 million in 2014 — a cut of 15 percent, said Hans von Rekowski with the forest recreation program.

That money is used to maintain 230 facilities in the Tongass, which at roughly 17 million acres is about the size of West Virginia and is the nation’s largest national forest.

“The money goes to cabins; it goes to interpretive education; it goes to our visitor centers, campgrounds, our heritage program and our special uses program,” von Rekowski said. “There are a lot of items that get funded out of recreation.”

Paul Clark, recreation planner for the Chugach National Forest, said the Southcentral national forest is faced with a similar situation. The Chugach’s budget for operating its 106 facilities had been steady at about $1.1 million for several years. Clark said over a two-year period from fiscal 2012-13 it dropped about 35 percent to $715,000.

“We are evaluating the sustainability of our facilities with our current budget,” Clark said.

The 5.4 million-acre Chugach is the second-largest national forest in the country.

In the Tongass, evaluating facilities has meant some are scheduled for closure. The U.S. Forest Service announced it is closing 12 of the 152 cabins it currently operates in the forest. Maintenance on the cabins will stop and the closings will be phased over the coming years, as the cabins are deemed unsafe or otherwise unsuitable for use, von Rekowski said.

The cabins chosen to close are some of the most remote and least used in the Tongass, he said, and maintaining them can cost from $5,000 to $15,000 per year if they require a floatplane for access. Minimum federal requirements mandate each cabin be inspected every five years.

The Forest Service is going through the National Environmental Protection Act, or NEPA, process now to remove the log buildings at a cost of about $2,000 to $4,000 per cabin, according to von Rekowski.

While a majority of the cabins in the Tongass were built in the 1980s, he said some of them are 50-plus years old.

“The remaining cabins — we’re looking for partners to or volunteers help us maintain them,” von Rekowski said. “On the low-use cabins we’re allowing outfitters and guides to rent them to try to boost revenue.”

He said the state has urged the Forest Service to keep them open so they can serve as emergency shelters, but has not to this point offered maintenance assistance.

As of now there are no plans to close any facilities in the Chugach, Clark said.

Occupancy rates for cabins in both the Chugach and the Tongass are about 30 percent. The 41 Chugach cabins generate about $160,000 per year and those in the Tongass bring in about $260,000. The most popular cabins on the Kenai Peninsula and near Juneau and Sitka are booked upwards of 270 nights per year. That equates to about 4,500 group visits in the Chugach and 13,900 in the Tongass to cabins that can usually accommodate four to six people.

More than 90 percent of that revenue goes back into facilities maintenance, Clark and von Rekowski said.

In 2008, the most recent data available, the Forest Service estimates 650,000 people visited the Chugach National Forest, Clark said. Data from the 2013 study should be ready soon he said.

Both men said revenue generated from facilities has remained steady while additional federal funding has fallen off. In March, automatic across-the-board budget sequestration cut 9 percent from federal programs.

Further, von Rekowski said the 43 mooring buoys maintained by the Forest Service in the Tongass would be phased out to save more money.

“About every 10 years it cost $15,000 to replace each mooring buoy,” he said.

Clark said the Chugach is discussing ways to partner with the University of Alaska Anchorage and the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center near Portage to support its Begich Boggs Visitor Center.

Wildlife Conservation Center spokesman Scott Michaelis wrote in an email that no formal plans have been made but that the center is eager to help the Forest Service with its visitor center.

Nancy Woizeschke, executive director of the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau said her organization markets the opportunities the Tongass provides for travelers and that the loss of the cabins is a concern. She added that it should “serve as a wakeup call” to the active community that it needs to invest time and resources to help maintain the recreation infrastructure that surrounds it.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

12/12/2013 - 7:26am