The pandemic has brought some truths about Alaska’s outdoor recreation sector into high relief and makes the case for greater state investment in the state’s $2.2 billion outdoor recreation economy. As elected leaders consider how to kickstart the recovery, outdoor recreation provides a way forward.
Public lands are to the outdoor industry as roads and bridges are to the automotive or transportation industry. Alaska lawmakers have considered traditional infrastructure like highways, bridges, airports and ports to be essential to our state’s economic well-being. Public lands like national parks, state and local parks and trails, forests, rivers, mountains and historic sites carry the same level of essential economic importance to the outdoor industry.
Those of us in the outdoor industry have a lot to be thankful for. Alaska Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink supported the idea that the outdoors was a safe place to practice social distance guidelines and keep mentally and physically well, even at the height of pandemic health hunker-down mandates. Alaskans responded by flocking to local and state public lands. State Parks Director Ricky Gease commented, “In 2020, the 50th anniversary of Alaska State Parks, we saw record numbers at trailheads, campgrounds, public use cabins and boat launches. A wide range of Alaskans rediscovered the value of outdoor recreation, as well as many first-time users.”
A central problem for Alaska is that the budget for our state park system has been stagnant for more than a decade. State Parks is increasingly unable to keep pace with demand or get ahead of its large and growing deferred maintenance backlog budget, now at $65 million. The difference between Alaska and Rhode Island state parks illustrates the magnitude of the need. The smallest state in the union has 52 full-time employees who manage 8,200 acres of parks, preserves and beaches. Alaska has 25 full-time rangers to clean, maintain and police 3.4 million acres of state park lands.
One solution put forth by the Dunleavy administration is to fully leverage federal grants for outdoor recreation infrastructure, such as the Land and Water Conservation Fund, or LWCF, and the Recreational Trails Program, aka RTP, that maximizes local and state investment in public parks, trails, boating facilities, sports fields and more. Another solution on the table by the administration is for the Legislature to use American Rescue Plan funding to support outdoor recreation infrastructure which translates into jobs and economic development while expanding the capacity to handle the increasing popularity of recreating outdoors.
Outdoor recreation, conservation and restoration projects helped get Alaskans back to work last summer. Juneau, Sitka and Anchorage allocated nearly $6 million in CARES Act funds to create local work crews in efforts that harkened back to the successful Civilian Conservation Corps of the Great Depression era. Based on its impressive results, Juneau’s Trail Mix Inc. is leading the charge to gain the support of the Dunleavy administration and Legislature to expand this model to a statewide workforce development program that could launch as early as this summer.
Meanwhile, land managers, local governments, tourism organizations and civic leaders from Seward to Fairbanks are working together to secure funding for the 500-mile Alaska Long Trail. Funding for this project, originally put forward by the governor, would fill key gaps in the planned route which would bolster tourism and rural economic development. At the same time, Rep. Geran Tarr has introduced a resolution that asks Gov. Mike Dunleavy to create an Office of Outdoor Equity to promote pathways to achieve greater equity, diversity and inclusion in outdoor activities and workforce development. This office would seek out grants to foster grassroots and tribal programs to achieve such goals so that every Alaskan can hike, camp, fish, hunt and enjoy the special places that only Alaska can offer. A grassroots-led effort by the newly founded Alaska Snowmachine Alliance is working with legislators on a measure to increase snowmachine and off-road vehicle registration fees to better support investment in winter transportation networks.
Approving and funding these requests would go a long way toward getting the Alaskan economy back in gear, getting Alaskans back to work on projects that keep Alaskans active, healthy, and happy outside, while adding reasons for our visitors to spend more time and money in Alaska. There could not be a better opportunity than now to ensure that our outdoor infrastructure is given the priority that it deserves to best build upon and strengthen Alaska’s outdoor heritage.
Lee Hart serves as executive director of Alaska Outdoor Alliance
Ryan O’Shaughnessy is executive director of Trail Mix, Inc.
Chris Beck is coordinator of the Alaska Trails Initiative.