A Chugach State Park ranger says he caught a pair of men stealing money from a fee box Sunday, a potential break in a wider series of thefts from other boxes within the park.
Park ranger Tom Crockett said Monday that the two men, who weren't immediately identified pending the filing of formal charges, were initially cited for fourth-degree theft.
Crockett first began to notice attempts about three weeks ago to steal money from the boxes, called "Iron Rangers" by park staff, which collect state fees for parking and the use of camping areas.
"Two weeks ago, I saw a serious attempt resulting in vandalism, causing us to replace the Iron Ranger," Crockett said.
Following that came six actual thefts from the boxes, in areas ranging from Turnagain Arm to Eagle River and Thunderbird Falls. The Thunderbird Falls theft, which took place Thursday night, was accompanied by a citizen's report of two suspicious men and a vehicle near the fee box.
At about 8 a.m. Sunday, Crockett said he was at the Bird Creek trailhead near Girdwood when he witnessed the two suspects stealing from the trailhead's Iron Ranger.
"I saw on approach that they had some of the implements suspected to be used, as well as a large number of envelopes fished from (the fee station)," Crockett said.
Crockett said he obtained a search warrant and seized about 30 envelopes from the men. He hadn't yet opened the envelopes, which remained in an evidence locker Monday, to count the money they contained.
"We are seeing if any of the evidence seized will link up with any of the other thefts," Crockett said.
Tom Harrison, the park's superintendent, declined to discuss how much money the typical Iron Ranger might collect, to avoid enticing thieves.
"It fluctuates dramatically based on the weather and the time of year," Harrison said. "(During) heavy park visitation, obviously there's more than when it's cold and rainy out."
Matt Wedeking, the deputy director at Alaska State Parks, said Chugach takes in slightly more than $1 million a year in total revenue, close to its $1.1 million in annual operating costs. About a third of that revenue, $327,000, comes from sales of permits.
"Pretty much everything else is fee boxes," Wedeking said.
Crockett called thefts from fee boxes a cyclical crime. He said the last similar wave of thefts at Chugach occurred about three years ago; park officials believe those thefts were linked to a group of people who eventually left the state.
"This is one of those goes-around-like-a-virus kinds of things: It'll be smooth sailing and then, every couple of years, you see a real surge in it," Crockett said. "You have to put your resources into seeing who the players are — where they're active, when they're active."
It wasn't immediately clear if the men caught at Bird Creek were linked with other thefts, or how much money was missing overall from the park's fee boxes.
Crockett said he is planning to consult with his Mat-Su counterparts to "compare notes and photos" from thefts in their areas, to see whether they're consistent with the system allegedly used by the two cited men.
"These gentlemen devised a very clever method for retrieving the fees without doing any real damage," Crockett said. "We're going to have to up our game with security and with collecting fees, so that we're not hemorrhaging fees that go into financing the park system."
The Thursday report to park staff about the Thunderbird Falls theft, which Crockett said was highly accurate, turned out to be instrumental in Sunday's stop.
"That description, down to the license plate, is what allowed me to identify these people in the act," Crockett said.
In the meantime, Harrison, the superintendent, asks park visitors to keep security on their mind and call in sightings of criminal activity to either law enforcement or park staff at 907-345-5014.
"Don't leave valuables in vision while you're in the parking lot," Harrison said. "Be ever-vigilant and if you see anything suspicious, report it."