Two contractors submitted proposals Tuesday to construct a controversial dock at a bear observatory between Wrangell and Ketchikan. On Thursday, the U.S. Forest Service rejected those bids because they were above the project’s budget. Meanwhile, Wrangell tour operators continue to oppose the dock as too expensive in a time of tight budgets.
The Forest Service is re-evaluating its design for a dock at the Anan Wildlife Observatory southeast of Wrangell. Randy Griffith of the Wrangell Ranger District said the bids on the project exceeded the estimated cost. Griffith said engineers will likely attempt to make the dock fit the budget.
District Ranger Bob Dalrymple said two contractors submitted proposals by the Nov. 3 deadline. The original deadline was in July, but the Forest Service extended it and amended the design because no contractors submitted proposals.
Forest Service officials declined to provide information about the contractors or their bid amounts. But the project was advertised in the range of $250,000 to $500,000.
Regardless of what the agency decides to do about the dock, a contract cannot be awarded until Congress finalizes appropriations for the agency.
Meanwhile, Wrangell tour operators, who depend heavily on Anan, continue to oppose the project that is billed as a safety improvement. They say it would only benefit visitors who come in on float planes, or about six people per day during the peak season.
Some say the cost isn’t worth it.
“It’s going to be very expensive,” said Alaska Waters owner and Anan guide Jim Leslie. “And this is, in particular, egregious to me in that there are so many needs at Anan for money to be spent to improve the facility for the safety of human beings and for the safety of bears.”
Leslie said the Forest Service has not given substantial answers to his questions about funding and future costs of maintenance and staffing.
“One of the fears that I have is that they’re going to increase user fees for all of us that visit Anan to pay for this dock that nobody wants,” Leslie said. “I have not spoken to anybody that supports the construction of this dock. It’s just a mystery to me how this thing keeps going down the pike in the face of all the opposition that I hear to it.”
The Stikine River Jet Boat Association, which represents several Wrangell tour operators, is drafting a letter in opposition to the project.
The cost of the dock is projected to exceed the entire Wrangell Ranger District’s recreation budget. That’s why some Wrangell tour operators think it’s a misuse of funds.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski and the Forest Service set aside $450,000 for the design and construction of the dock. In addition to that, the Wrangell district spent $37,000 on an environmental analysis.
The recreation budget for Wrangell in Fiscal Year 2015 was $315,000. This year, it’s supposed to drop below $300,000.
Wrangell residents see the lack of funding reflected in the decline of cabin and trail maintenance. The district does not stock firewood at campsites anymore.
Tour operators worry those services will take a further hit when the cost of staffing, maintaining and moving the Anan dock each year is taken into account.
Brenda Schwartz-Yeager owns Alaska Charters and Adventures.
“Are we building this huge project at the expense of our already-existing infrastructure?” Schwartz-Yeager asked. “So I think that’s a good question to ask is, how much is it really going to cost? And who’s really going to pay for it? And what sort of trade-offs are we making?”
Forest Service officials said they do not have an estimate for future costs associated with the dock, and they cannot release hard figures until a contract is awarded for construction.
Griffith said hiring an extra staff member for a new trailhead needed for the dock would cost between $14,000 and $19,000. A hiring freeze has prevented the district from filling existing job vacancies.
Griffith said the district does not have an estimate for the cost of moving and storing the seasonal dock each winter. But dismantling the dock, moving the sections with a crane and transporting them on a landing craft will likely cost thousands of dollars a year.
According to Eric Ouderkirk, the team leader for the project, the Forest Service also budgeted at least $110,000 to design other developments at Anan like additional outhouses and trail work.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story stated the Wrangell Ranger District will not repair a popular trail bridge. That referred to the bridge at the Chief Shakes Hot Springs. The bridge was removed, but a new trail was blazed that doesn’t require the use of a bridge.