Federal funding for recreation programs on the Tongass National Forest has been declining in recent years, and in Wrangell, it has led to reduced Forest Service staff and the loss of some services.
Earlier this month, the Wrangell Ranger District held a public meeting to discuss ideas for keeping cabins, trails and campsites maintained in the face of budget cuts. Wrangell residents said they are willing to help the local recreation program, but the U.S. Forest Service’s own rules and practices can get in the way of people trying to volunteer their time or donate money.
About two dozen Wrangell residents expressed various concerns at the meeting, but their main message to the Forest Service was, “Don’t close cabins.”
There are 22 cabins on the Wrangell Ranger District that each receive between eight and 115 reservations a year. One cabin was taken off the reservation system recently, and more cabins with low use could be slated for closure.
As Congress appropriates less and less money for Tongass recreation programs, Wrangell’s seasonal recreation staff has shrunk from four people to just one worker.
Wrangell District Ranger Bob Dalrymple said they don’t have the resources to keep up with cabin maintenance, so the district will try to get help from volunteers and nonprofits. This is part of a region wide strategy the Forest Service describes as a new focus on organizing other entities to work on recreation sites instead of having their own employees do the work.
At the public meeting, Wrangell residents said they want to help the recreation program. They said they would do repair work, shuttle volunteers to remote cabins and donate money.
But District Ranger Bob Dalrymple admitted volunteering for the Forest Service is not that simple.
“It’s pretty clear that we have some obstacles, I guess that don’t make that as easy as it should be,” Dalrymple said. “We are focusing on that, and the whole forest is working on that.”
Depending on the job, volunteering can involve education and safety requirements because the Forest Service incurs liability for its volunteers. And for nonprofits and businesses wanting to circumvent that by offering money to the district, there is no avenue for donating to a cabin maintenance fund.
The Stikine Sportsmen Association has an agreement with the Forest Service to take care of Middle Ridge cabin, but it cannot donate money outright. If a window is broken at the cabin, the association can donate a new window, and the Forest Service staff would install it.
Dalrymple said he will be working with a Tongass partnership coordinator to see how the district can better collaborate with groups in town. He said the district also needs to do a better job of letting people know about volunteer opportunities, and that it’s clear the district needs someone to coordinate volunteer work.
Former recreation staff member Bob Lippert said he tried to do that when he worked for the Forest Service. He expressed frustration with the conversation that took place at the meeting because those topics have been discussed within the Forest Service for a few years.
“This whole budget crisis, it didn’t just happen overnight. It’s been talked about since 2012,” Lippert said. “So I feel like it was just a blatant lack of preparation and kind of ignoring what was being said.”
Lippert said the budget situation is serious, but he thinks the recreation program could be in a better place now if some things had been done differently. Mainly, he wanted the maintenance crew leader position to be filled a few years ago.
“You still need at least a skeleton crew of people that have the skills and knowledge of how to get everywhere, even if you have a cadre of volunteers,” Lippert said. “That was the one battle I fought the hardest, was to get that position filled. If that position would’ve been filled, regardless of the budget situation, it would’ve been a lot better.”
Now, the Forest Service has a hiring freeze in place.
Lippert said volunteering is great, but there are certain things volunteers probably don’t want to do, like burn waste from outhouses. So he thinks for this strategy to work, either more staff is needed, or private contractors would have to get involved.
“That statement about being conveners rather than doers came out in early 2014, and I don’t really know what that means,” Lippert said. “I haven’t really seen what the Forest Service is doing regarding that. I’m not sure who they’re convening to do the doing.”
Lippert added that the recreation staff on the district has been asking to have a public meeting on this topic for two years.
Closing down low-use cabins and partnering with other organizations are not the only strategies the Forest Service has for dealing with the funding decline. They will reduce services, which Wrangell has seen in the form of not having firewood provided at cabins and campsites. They will increase fees, which already happened for all cabins in Alaska. The Forest Service might also increase fees for the Anan Wildlife Observatory.
If it does come down to getting rid of cabins, decisions will be based on how often they are used.
Dalrymple said if Wrangell residents fix something at a recreation site or clear a trail, they should let the district office know.
“We do have to track our volunteer hours that people help us with,” Dalrymple said. “It goes into a national database, but that’s good to do because then that database is used to funnel money to encourage more of that kind of work.”
He also encouraged people to tell the Forest Service if anything on the district requires maintenance.
At the end of the public meeting, Brenda Schwartz-Yeager urged residents to write to Congress because that is where Tongass recreation funding decisions are made.