tongass hiking

A hiker takes on a snowy trail in the Wrangell Ranger District of the Tongass National Forest. Southeast Alaska business-owners affiliated with the visitor industry worry recreation funding is declining too quickly to maintain trails and cabins on the Tongass. (Katarina Sostaric/KSTK)

Fifty Southeast Alaska business-owners are asking Congress to give more money to the Tongass National Forest recreation program. Funding for trails, cabins and wildlife-viewing sites has declined in recent years, and tour operators worry the Forest Service will not be able to maintain the attractions they depend on.

Much of the visitor industry in Southeast Alaska depends on the Tongass National Forest for sightseeing, hiking, camping and wildlife-viewing opportunities. And with tourism growing, companies that lead visitors through the Tongass worry federal funding for the biggest national forest is declining too quickly.

“The recreation program for the Tongass is so key to the tourism industry here that once the dollars started to drop, it became an issue that a lot of both small and large companies started to take note of,” said Laurie Cooper of Trout Unlimited, a national conservation organization active in Alaska.

Cooper also works as a guide in Juneau and said she started to notice a decline in trail maintenance and assistance with permitting issues.

“As funding has dropped, the Forest Service has basically said they’re not going to be able to provide the same services they have in the past,” Cooper said. “And with 80 percent of the land base here in the Tongass National Forest, a good majority of the tourism industry relies on being able to have access for visitors to take them into the Tongass safely and just to operate their businesses.”

Cooper said the recreation budget for the U.S. Forest Service has been in decline across the country, but the Tongass is facing cuts that are 30 to 40 percent deeper than in other states.

According to a letter a coalition of Southeast businesses sent to Congress, the amount spent on recreation in the Tongass does not match up with the proportion of revenue it brings in.

Ten percent of the Tongass budget goes to recreation, but half of the forest’s revenue comes from recreation.

Wrangell District Ranger Bob Dalrymple said his recreation program budget was cut in half over the past two years.

He said he could only afford one seasonal worker this summer. The district usually hires four. It also has a hiring freeze, so vacant positions cannot be filled.

“Two of those are key. One of them is the Anan manager, and the other one is our recreation lead person that coordinates all of the cabin maintenance, trail maintenance and developed recreation, so that had a pretty big impact on the program,” Dalrymple said. “We’re still trying to keep things going.”

The Anan Wildlife Observatory is a popular bear-viewing site on the mainland between Wrangell and Ketchikan.

Dalrymple said he does not have enough employees to provide firewood at cabins and campgrounds anymore.

He said trails and cabins in the Wrangell Ranger District are in good shape, but anything can happen.

“I know there’s some blowdown now on the Kunk trail, and it has damaged the trail. So we’re having a hard time responding to those kinds of fixes,” Dalrymple said. “As those things happen we’re going to have to close those access routes until we can come up with some way to get it fixed.”

He said the Forest Service may have to partner with other organizations and increase fees to maintain recreation sites on the Tongass.

Fees at Juneau’s Mendenhall Glacier Forest Service viewing area are already slated to go up.