Juneau draws inspiration from Depression-era solutions with plan to put locals to work on trails

Groups of volunteers spread across the new Under Thunder trail on June 2 as part of the National Trails Day celebrations.The crews worked on clearing logs and debris and re-vegetating muddy areas along the trail. Erik Boraas, executive director of Trail Mix, cuts logs to be hauled off the trail.
Erik Boraas of Trail Mix cuts logs to be hauled off the Under Thunder trail in June 2012. (Photo by Heather Bryant/KTOO)

A city proposal would use $1 million in CARES Act funding to create temporary jobs for locals out of work due to the pandemic. 

Supporters say the COVID-19 Conservation Corps would help stimulate the local economy, provide work training and improve many of Juneau’s well-loved trails. But it’s not the only legislation aimed at stimulating the outdoor economy. 

The New Deal-inspired work program aims to put people to work on city trails to help them recover from the financial impacts of COVID-19.

If approved by the Assembly on Wednesday, it would fund roughly 40 jobs. The money would be split between the Parks and Recreation Department, Eaglecrest Ski Area and Trail Mix, a local non-profit that builds and maintains trails. 

“We’re going to want to work people as long as we can, and it’ll be kind of a weather-dependent thing,” said Eaglecrest General Manager Dave Scanlan. “You know, if we have a slower start to the winter or a warmer, drier fall.”

Scanlan said they plan to about 12 hire people to help with summer maintenance on ski, hiking and biking trails on the mountain. 

The city already posted job listings for temporary positions at Eaglecrest and in the Parks and Recreation Department, even though the funding hasn’t officially been approved. 

Parks Director George Schaaf said that’s because they want to be able to move as quickly as possible once it is. The Assembly has been supportive of the proposal from the Economic Stabilization Task Force in committee discussions so far.

Schaaf said they hope to get people working by early July. And with more than 250 miles of trails in Juneau, there’s plenty to do.  

“As we’ve added more miles of trail here in Juneau over the last few years, we haven’t necessarily been able to add additional funding or resources to take care of those trails,” Schaaf said. “So we are looking forward this year to getting out and clearing pretty much every trail in our inventory.”

Both Schaaf and Trail Mix Executive Director Ryan O’Shaughnessy pointed to a number of trail bridges that could use replacement, such as one on the Dupont Trail in Thane. Schaaf added that there’s a backlog of drainage work and washout repairs along sections of Perseverance Trail that they’d like to get to.

Pay for the temporary positions is around $20 an hour. 

Sierra Gadaire is a manager at Gastineau Guiding, one of many local tour companies that had to lay people off this summer as it became clear the cruise ships wouldn’t be coming. 

She said the majority of unemployed tourism workers in Juneau are year-round residents, since the pandemic started before temporary workers arrived for the season. 

“They will not be making as much money as they may have made in a tip economy job like tourism is, but they’re already committed to being here … now they are able to work on a project that directly benefits their community,” Gadaire said. 

Gadaire has also been advocating for a statewide job plan using stimulus money to benefit Alaska’s outdoor recreation economy. 

Part of that also involves encouraging the congressional delegation to support the Great American Outdoors Act. That bill would divert billions of dollars to deferred maintenance and outdoor infrastructure across the country. 

“I expected it to be happening on a state and federal level. But the fact that it’s also happening on a city level is fantastic,” she said. 

That federal legislation could also directly benefit Juneau’s conservation corps by providing additional funding in the future.

“I’m very optimistic that the federal bill that’s working its way through the Senate may be a conduit for future funding to keep these people that we’re going to train through Eaglecrest, Parks and Recreation and Trail Mix and to provide a funding source to continue doing this work that Conservation Corps is going to do this summer,” Scanlan said.

The Senate is expected to vote on the bill tomorrow. 

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