'Interpreters' losing positions on AMHS due to cuts
Alaska’s state-owned ferries are scaling back costs by getting rid of the naturalist program on all but one of the 11-ship fleet this year.
State officials say the program may eventually be brought back, but for now, the plan is to replace them with computerized equipment and brochures on the Alaska Marine Highway System, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
In light of Alaska’s declining revenues and an unclear financial future, the state’s various departments were asked to bring expenses down by eliminating items that do not affect core functions.
Naturalists, who are hired and paid by the U.S. Forest Service or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, make about $22,000 a season. The state provides them free room and board on the ferry, which costs about $5,000 per year, per ship, according to Jeremy Woodrow, a spokesman for the Alaska Department of Transportation, the department responsible for the ferry system.
“The core purpose of the marine highway system really is providing transportation as a highway,” Woodrow said.
Interpreter programs on many ships began disappearing when funding from the federal government became less certain.
Without knowing for sure whether the federal government would be able to pay for interpreters in the future, the Department of Transportation is now hesitant to sign a contract to rent out a room for them.
That’s space that could be used to transport Alaska’s tourists and in-state travelers, the department said.
This summer will be the first time in 23 years that the Tustumena doesn’t have a naturalist on board, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official Larry Bell.
It’s a loss for tourists because the state ferry system is one of the few ways to see the Aleutian Islands. Cruise ships mostly travel southeast Alaska, with some venturing to Anchorage and Kodiak.
“I’m really befuddled, because to save a few bucks on what they pay for me to ride and do all the work for the passengers is eventually going to bite them,” Stuart said. “I’m afraid that the state of Alaska is going to be hurt a little more deeply than just not getting ferry revenues. I think people just might not come to Alaska if they really wanted to do a ferry trip.”