As budgets shrink, private management of Alaska state park sites grows

In Valdez, some of the people responsible for getting state parks ready for the summer season don't actually work for the state, but instead for an adventure sports company called Levitation 49.

Last year, the nonprofit landed a federal grant to manage several recreation sites, including reopening a trail that had become overgrown and buying equipment  — chain saws, weed whackers — needed for maintenance.

"We are sort of becoming a mini parks department," said Lee Hart, executive director of Levitation 49. The nonprofit is operating sites at Worthington Glacier State Recreation Site, Blueberry Lake State Recreation Site, Shoup Bay Trail and the three public use cabins in Shoup Bay State Marine Park. "Our board felt it would be a travesty to have those assets closed."

All the state park sites in both Valdez and Sitka were put into "passive management" — meaning the state doesn't actively perform maintenance — in July of last year because of state budget cuts.

Now, some places in Delta Junction might be next.

"I would say in the budget cuts we do, we take the tack of, 'Hey, we're going to put this in passive management,' " said Matt Wedeking, acting director of Alaska State Parks. "That is when we basically lock the bathrooms, pull the dumpsters, we just drive around and make sure the place hasn't burned down once a month, but we don't manage it anymore. The public is free to use it."

Fire pits and picnic tables are also removed or closed under passive management.


In the Delta Junction area, there are six park sites that the state might soon stop managing, though it's unclear whether that will actually happen because the Legislature is still in gridlock over the state budget.

"We live in a rural community, we don't have a parks and rec department, and state parks are where we go to recreate," said Mindy Eggleston, chair of the Delta Junction Trails Association. "This budget cut situation is really difficult to see how it's going to fit within our community."

Sites that are chosen to go into passive management are characterized by "low visitation, frequent facility vandalism, high maintenance costs, close proximity of similar private or state facilities, or poor revenue generating capabilities," according to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.

Funding for parks management and access has declined 8.6 percent since 2015, comparing the budget for that fiscal year with Gov. Bill Walker's proposed budget for 2018.

In recent years, the list of state park sites managed by concessionaires — private parties that sometimes take over when a site is in passive management — has grown "as budgets and staffing shrunk and State Parks was directed to provide more opportunities for the private sector," Wedeking said in an email.

There are dozens of such spots around Alaska, though the state is also looking at if there are places where it might make sense financially for Alaska State Parks to manage again, Wedeking said.

In Southeast Alaska, a Juneau group is even taking over some work in place of the U.S. Forest Service. The nonprofit Trail Mix last year signed an agreement with the Forest Service for work in Juneau, Hoonah, Cordova and elsewhere to build bike paths, clear brush, work on bridges and almost anything else related to trail maintenance.

"Recreation budgets are not what they used to be," said Erik Boraas, executive director at Trail Mix. "The Forest Service, the D.C. office, recognizes that they can't do what they used to do, so there's a strong push for the ranger district to work with partners."

Hart, at Levitation 49 in Valdez, said the group likes to think of itself as a stopgap to a problem, rather than a permanent fix.

"We don't necessarily want to take care of the state parks forever," she said. "I think what we want to do is create a coalition of people that has a voice that stands up for recreation, so the budget gets restored, so you're not closing state parks all over the state, and so the state does take care of them."

But now, Levitation 49's funding appears to have a somewhat uncertain future, too. Hart received an email last week from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources alerting her and others that reimbursements for trail grant work done after June 30 are no longer certain, because of the state's budget crisis.

"We have a federally funded trail project in progress that's managed by the state that's in jeopardy because of the possible state shutdown," Hart said. "It's really annoying."

Annie Zak

Annie Zak was a business reporter for the ADN between 2015 and 2019.