It’s hard not to be frustrated with the Forest Service. If this bloated federal bureaucracy isn’t wasting taxpayer dollars on money-losing timber sales in Southeast Alaska, its officials are whining about how costly public-use cabins are to maintain in the Tongass National Forest. Or, as the case may be, planning to shut them down.
Last week the federal agency issued a press release from its Ketchikan office saying because some of the 152 public cabins on the Tongass sit in remote locations and don’t experience heavy use, they “have been allowed to deteriorate.” And the Forest Service’s plan is to close a yet-to-be-determined number. The cabin program lost $600,000 last year so in the interest of being “strategic,” the best way to reverse the budget shortfall, the Forest Service argues, is to shutter cabins. The agency blames the situation, in part, on reduced federal funding for recreation in the Tongass, saying it’s dropped by 50 percent over the last decade or so.
Let’s get this straight. The Tongass is one of Alaska’s most stunningly beautiful places. It’s a world-class destination for tourists, hunters, anglers and others, a place that supports a $1 billion annual visitor industry. More than one million tourists descend upon the Southeast Alaska rain forest every year. They drop more than $2 billion annually on airfares, souvenirs, T-shirts, and local excursions like fly fishing, kayaking and flight seeing. But somehow the Forest Service can’t figure out a way to entice more of these people to use public facilities in the Tongass? They can’t somehow sell the story of these rustic, scenic cabins located in some of the country’s most gorgeous natural settings? This is either a case of really bad marketing or an agency that knows nothing about dollars and sense.
Case in point: while the Forest Service is planning to shutter public cabins popular with locals and visitors alike, it’s continuing to waste more than $20 million a year putting together timber sales that lose big piles of money and create huge public controversy. The Tongass timber industry accounts for less than one percent of jobs in Southeast Alaska and yet it gets the lion’s share of the Forest Service budget in Southeast. Salmon and trout fisheries account for more than 10 percent of regional jobs. Visitor services provide about 20 percent of overall Southeast Alaska employment. And yet somehow funding for these industries always takes a back seat to the Forest Service’s logging program. It makes zero economic sense.
If you disagree with the Forest Service’s plan to close Tongass cabins, do something about it. The Forest Service contact is listed as Hans von Rekowski, staff officer for recreation, heritage, and wilderness in the Tongass. Tell him this misguided decision needs to be halted and more of the taxpayer funds dedicated to old-growth logging should be directed to recreation, fisheries and visitor services – the Tongass’ real money makers. His phone number is 907-747-4217 and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.