Con­trol Is­sues

When three state parks in Alaska were on the brink of clo­sure, a non­profit stepped in to help.

Backpacker - - Contents - BY ADAM ROY

Sup­port­ers say pri­vate groups can res­cue cash-strapped parks. Op­po­nents say no way. Here’s how it’s play­ing out in Alaska.

AT ITS BEST, the Shoup Bay Trail is a sam­pler of what makes Alaska great. For 10 miles, the route traces the shore­line of Valdez and Shoup Bays, pass­ing through alder for­est and flower-filled mead­ows on its way to views of Shoup Glacier. But last sum­mer one thing was miss­ing: the trail.

The path, over­grown with spiky devil’s club and cat’s claw, rep­re­sented one small por­tion of Alaska state parks’ $65.1 mil­lion in de­ferred main­te­nance, but the four-per­son crew that showed up to tackle it in the sum­mer of 2017 hadn’t been sent by the state. In­stead, they were work­ing for Valdez Ad­ven­ture Al­liance, a lo­cal non­profit ex­per­i­ment­ing with a new way of keep­ing Alaska’s pub­lic lands open.

Alaska’s state park sys­tem is the big­gest in the coun­try, man­ag­ing some 3.6 mil­lion acres. Un­for­tu­nately, its bud­get—$14 mil­lion in 2017—is minis­cule by com­par­i­son, a frac­tion of the $522 mil­lion that Cal­i­for­nia will spend on its parks this sea­son.

“Ev­ery­body’s been work­ing to tighten their belts and do what they can to cut costs,” says Ethan Tyler, di­rec­tor of Alaska’s Di­vi­sion of Parks and Out­door Recre­ation. The di­vi­sion has turned to pri­vate op­er­a­tors, gen­er­ally lo­cals, to run 26 of its parks. Those that don’t find tak­ers risk slip­ping into “pas­sive man­age­ment,” which is as bad as it sounds.

Pri­vate en­ter­prise has been part of Amer­ica’s pub­lic lands since 1916, when Stephen Mather, the first di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Park Ser­vice, in­tro­duced con­ces­sions to the na­tional parks. They’re now com­mon­place, from ho­tels and restau­rants to buses and back­coun­try guides. But in the past decade, a few politi­cians have gone fur­ther and pro­posed pri­va­tiz­ing the op­er­a­tion of en­tire park units. Ad­vo­cates ar­gue that pri­vately run parks like Alaska’s cut over­head and re­duce the bur­den on tax­pay­ers.

Some con­tend that the profit mo­tive can be a force for good. War­ren Meyer, pres­i­dent of con­ces­sion­aire Recre­ation Re­source Man­age­ment, says that de­pen­dence on fees cre­ates an in­cen­tive for com­mer­cial op­er­a­tors to put users first. “In our com­pany, 100 per­cent of the rev­enues we re­ceive is from vis­i­tors, which means that if we don’t run a good op­er­a­tion that is at­trac­tive to vis­i­tors, we don’t make any money,” writes Meyer on his blog, parkpri­va­ti­za­tion.com. Pri­vate op­er­a­tors don’t own the parks they run, and user fees are set by the gov­ern­ment.

Op­po­nents counter that pri­vate op­er­a­tors don’t pay their fair share of main­te­nance, al­low­ing them to reap prof­its while leav­ing tax­pay­ers to foot the bill. A re­view by the Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress found $389 mil­lion in de­ferred main­te­nance at con­ces­sion­aire op­er­ated fa­cil­i­ties through­out the na­tional parks. Oth­ers worry that pri­va­ti­za­tion is the first step to­ward a stealth takeover of Amer­ica’s her­itage, such as in 2016, when Yosemite spent $1.7 mil­lion on new signs af­ter the out­go­ing con­ces­sion­aire, Delaware North, claimed trade­marks on the names of sev­eral of the park’s iconic sites.

But there’s a third way. When Alaska state parks an­nounced in 2015 that it was search­ing for per­mi­tees to man­age three Valdezarea parks, in­clud­ing Shoup Bay State Ma­rine Park, it was a lo­cal non­profit, not a cor­po­ra­tion, that an­swered the call. Founded just months ear­lier, Valdez Ad­ven­ture Al­liance’s mis­sion is to pro­mote out­door sports as an eco­nomic al­ter­na­tive to ex­trac­tive in­dus­tries.

For Valdez, the parks rep­re­sent in­come: Roughly 100,000 peo­ple visit them ev­ery year, con­tribut­ing an es­ti­mated $5 mil­lion to the lo­cal econ­omy. “We felt it would be dev­as­tat­ing to have these park units close,” says Lee Hart, VAA’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor. Rather than al­low­ing a com­mer­cial op­er­a­tion to cher­ryp­ick the most prof­itable sites, VAA ar­gued that the state should give pri­or­ity to groups will­ing to man­age the en­tire pack­age. Af­ter some dis­cus­sion, the par­ties inked a two-year con­tract.

Non­prof­its have long lent cash­strapped states a hand in main­tain­ing parks. But with this agree­ment, Valdez Ad­ven­ture Al­liance be­came the only one in Alaska to run all as­pects of a park, from cart­ing away trash and stock­ing bath­rooms to col­lect­ing camp­ground fees.

The most se­ri­ous chal­lenge, how­ever, was sim­ply keep­ing the trails open. “Valdez is a sub­arc­tic rain­for­est, and in the sum­mer, veg­e­ta­tion grows in­cred­i­bly quickly,” Hart says. In Shoup Bay, it took a crew of con­trac­tors three weeks of “heroic brush-cut­ting” to clear a 7-mile sec­tion.

Soon, VAA faced another crux: fund­ing. It be­came clear to Hart that, with­out state money, user fees from camp­site and cabin reser­va­tions wouldn’t be enough to cover their op­er­a­tions. Lo­cals chipped in, with a few restau­rants pledg­ing to donate 1 per­cent of their prof­its. VAA also se­cured a $40,000 grant from the U.S. De­part­ment of Trans­porta­tion—cash un­avail­able to for-profit op­er­a­tions.

To­day, Shoup Bay State Ma­rine Park is in bet­ter shape than when VAA took it over; the trail re­opened last sum­mer, and the or­ga­ni­za­tion is in talks with the state to re­new its con­tract for another five years.

Both groups agree that they don’t want the non­profit to run the parks for­ever. But with Alaska’s fi­nan­cial fu­ture still un­cer­tain, will the state be able to take them back any­time soon?

“That’s the mil­lion-dol­lar ques­tion,” Tyler says.

OP­PO­NENTS COUNTER THAT PRI­VATE OP­ER­A­TORS DON’T PAY THEIR FAIR SHARE OF MAIN­TE­NANCE, AL­LOW­ING THEM TO REAP PROF­ITS WHILE LEAV­ING TAX­PAY­ERS TO FOOT THE BILL.

In 2017, Valdez Ad­ven­ture Al­liance re­opened a 7-mile seg­ment of the Shoup Bay Trail for the first time in 5 years.

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