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By Dan Rudy 

Forest Service finding ways to cooperate with maintenance

 


A crowd-drawing discussion on recreation funding held by the Forest Service Tuesday evening made the council chambers at City Hall feel unusually short for space.

About two dozen members of the public met with staff of the Wrangell Ranger District to share their concerns about facilities maintenance. Listing concerns from greatest to least, residents participating at the meeting identified cabins, ATV trails and the overall recreation program as their top priorities, followed by trails, berry access, subsistence and stoves.

Funding for facilities maintenance has declined by better than 40 percent since 2009. The drop in allocated funding went from just better than $700,000 that year to around $400,000 for 2016, with a potential decrease at current levels to around $300,000 by 2020.

A hiring pause was formally initiated last fall at the start of the new budget cycle but the freeze had been a long time coming. Attrition has since reduced dedicated recreation maintenance staff to zero and the district is looking for alternative solutions. In the meantime, Ranger Bob Dalrymple explained the district would have to reinvent itself a bit and rearrange some duties to cope.

He and facilitator Nicole McMurren from the Petersburg district office led the night's discussion, fielding questions over coffee and noting suggestions. Dalrymple also provided an overview of the Forest Service's recreation program.

The recreation program is funded through a combination of funding sources, from fees, congressional appropriations, competitive capital improvement monies (CIP) and special initiatives. Examples of the latter include Recreation Advisory Committee funds through Secure Rural Schools and Department of Transportation grant to extend the Mt. Dewey trail network.

Different facilities are financed with different proportions of these funding sources. For example, this year about two thirds of Stikine River management funding comes from appropriations and another 37 percent from user fees, for a total of $56,000 in all. By contrast, more than half of funding for the Anan Wildlife Observatory this year comes from CIP, a fifth from RAC grants, and the rest from fees and appropriations, for around $305,000 in all.

The Wrangell Ranger District maintains 22 cabins on surrounding islands and the mainland, in addition to shelters and other campgrounds. The majority of these are low-use, with around a third seeing fewer than 25 bookings each year.

“It costs a lot to maintain those, especially the remote ones,” Dalrymple explained. Unfortunately, usage is among the factors used to determine resource allocations, which eventually puts pressure on districts to decommission seldom- or seasonally-used facilities.

To help shoulder some of these costs, districts have been encouraged to find community partners to help care for recreational amenities. Some examples in Wrangell include the high school shop producing furniture for cabins, Wrangell Tribal Association's transportation office helping to maintain Nemo Loop and other roads, and Southeast Alaska Power Agency adopting a pair of cabins for light duty maintenance.

Friends of the Tongass was a 1990s-era nonprofit which facilitated such projects, but eventually folded. At the meeting, the Stikine Sportsmen Association was suggested as a potential partner. The group's members raise funds each year to support a variety of recreational uses, and have adopted some of the upkeep for popular Middle Ridge Cabin.

On the Sportsmen board, Dave Powell pointed out there are no easy avenues to provide funds for project maintenance, and that on the other hand there is no longer regular maintenance staff with the Forest Service able to approach the group with facility needs. However, he said the group was currently on track to be formally registered as a nonprofit corporation, which Dalrymple pointed out could make partnering up an easier process.

While usage figures are one way USFS valuates facility usage, Dalrymple pointed out another is through logged volunteer hours. “To capture that non-Forest Service work is important.” The Forest Service has venues to contribute time, such as signing up to accompany work crews on projects. Dalrymple said the process is ordinarily a fairly simple one, with volunteers needing to sign an agreement and undergo project-specific safety instruction.

People doing upkeep at Forest Service amenities on their own time are also encouraged to let the office know so it can log that volunteer time, provided the work being done is compliant with applicable regulations and standards. But there are still other ways to help, the simplest being letting the district office know how things are going with cabins, trails and other facilities.

“The easiest thing people can do is let us know,” Dalrymple said. “Report some things, both cabins and trails.”

McMurren pointed out another way to help the district is to file a project proposal with the local RAC, which has $440,000 to split between Wrangell, Petersburg and Kake.

Outfitter and guide Brenda Schwartz-Yeager noted recreation is not getting as much attention as timber sales and other aspects of the Forest Service mission, or the funding. She noted that the problem is not merely one for the district level to try and solve, but needs action from a higher level.

“We need to be calling our senators and the heads of the Forest Service, and writing letters,” she told fellow participants.

Forest Service staff met yesterday morning to go over points and questions that came up during the meeting, and will endeavor to follow up on each.

“We will do the best that we can to create logical next steps for each question,” Nicole McMurren told folk at the meeting's end. How to get that information back out to the public would be another problem to solve, but another meeting may be in the offing.

 

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