Advocates make an economic-development case for improving Alaska trails

Trails are places for people to relax, exercise and have fun outdoors. Now their advocates in Alaska are increasingly promoting another aspect of trails: their contributions to the economy.

“When you talk about outdoor recreation. People are, like, ‘That’s just the fun stuff we do every day,’” Lee Hart, executive director of the Alaska Outdoor Alliance, told the audience on Thursday at the annual Alaska Trails Conference held in Anchorage. “But, no, we are a plank of an economic development strategy. And we are part of it. And we deserve to be taken more seriously.”

The economic argument is articulated in the state’s latest outdoor recreation plan, said Ricky Gease, director of the Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation.

At the trails conference on Thursday, Gease gave a sneak preview of the Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan, also known as SCORP, which he said will be released publicly in about a month after the National Park Service completes its review of it.

The SCORP is a document issued every five years to help guide grants that are distributed from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. The fund, established by Congress in 1964, uses revenues from offshore oil and gas development to support projects in places ranging from remote national parks and wildlife refuges to neighborhood playgrounds. Every state must produce its own five-year SCORP to qualify for grants from the fund.

The last SCORP released by the state put a focus on youth needs. This time, the 2023-2027 plan includes some explicit economic goals: making outdoor recreation a “cornerstone” of the state economy, expanding the outdoor recreation workforce and using outdoor recreation to attract and retain residents and businesses. The latter goal addresses Alaska’s demographic situation. The state has had 10 straight years of net outmigration, and since 2013 its working-age population has declined at a higher rate than all but two other states.

The new plan holds hard data to show that investments in outdoor recreation have economic payoffs, Gease said in an interview on Friday.


“We intentionally tried to move away from anecdotal information,” he said.

Trails and the outdoor recreation they support comprise a bright spot in Alaska’s otherwise clouded economic picture, he said.

“If you look at our overall economic performance over the last decade, it has kind of flatlined. But one of the things that has shown growth is the outdoor recreation sector,” he said. “Investing in things that have done well, people need to think about it.”

The ability to use hard data in the SCORP is thanks in part to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, which in 2018 began tracking the outdoor recreation sector’s contribution to the nation’s and to individual states’ economies, Gease said. The latest BEA report shows that the sector in 2021 accounted for 3.6% of Alaska’s gross domestic product, one of the highest percentages in the nation.

Emphasizing economic aspects of trails can help attract funding from new sources, Gease and others said at the three-day conference. That makes organizations with economic-development missions — like the federal Denali Commission — suitable sources for needed money to match Land and Water Conservation Fund grants.

It is an argument that resonates with state lawmakers, too, Gease said. The Legislature has made important investments in state parks, he said, such as the replacement of “iron ranger” fee-collection canisters with a system enabling electronic payments, freeing up state employees from the time-consuming task of collecting and counting crumpled bills and loose coins. This year, he said, the division is seeking funding to build more public use cabins, and next year plans to ask for funding to upgrade existing cabins. A big funding priority is to improve parking lots, which often overflow, he said.

But the needs are great, he told attendees at the trail conference. The state parks division has an $85 million deferred maintenance backlog, a total that has grown over the years, he said.

Alaska Long Trail economic vision

Also making an economic pitch to state lawmakers are advocates of the Alaska Long Trail.

The long-term project would ultimately connect existing state and municipal parks, the Chugach National Forest and other land units that already have trails into an unbroken 500-mile corridor running from the Resurrection Bay shoreline in Seward to Fairbanks.

The concept has gotten a positive reception in the Legislature so far, advocates said at the conference. Last year lawmakers approved $14.7 million in spending on Alaska Long Trail-related projects, though vetoes by Gov. Mike Dunleavy reduced the approved spending to $4.2 million.

Requests for this session total nearly $9.5 million and comprise 14 projects, including some that were vetoed last year.

Much of the ongoing work and work planned in the near future focuses on relatively short connections between existing trails.

One desired connection on the wish list presented to legislators would link the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail with the Ship Creek Trail in downtown Anchorage.

The project envisions an intersection at the city’s small boat launch, with the area to be developed in a way that honors Indigenous culture, said Beth Nordlund, executive director of the Anchorage Park Foundation. That would include Indigenous language signage, among other features, Nordlund told conference attendees. The Anchorage Park Foundation hopes to combine multiple sources of money, including foundation grants, to make the project a reality. The site already has a statue and other displays honoring Olga Nikolai Ezi, a Dena’ina woman prominent in local history.

Generally, there is local support for these types of trail projects, said Nordlund, who pointed to voters’ approval of park bonds in the recent Anchorage municipal election. “Anchorage definitely loves its trails and we keep voting for our local bonds,” she said.

Beyond state and local funding, Alaska Long Trail advocates have turned to the federal government for support.

Trail-related investments and improvements along the corridor already secured about $11 million in congressional appropriations over the past two years, and there are requests for another $7.55 million in funding for the coming fiscal year, said Mariyam Medovaya, project coordinator with the Alaska Trails Initiative, the nonprofit that is guiding the planning for the Alaska Long Trail.


One of the items already funded through the omnibus spending bill passed in December is a $1 million Bureau of Land Management feasibility study of whether the Alaska Long Trail could qualify as one of the designated National Scenic Trails. That work is expected to take two or three years, Medovaya said.

There are only 11 trails currently on the list, she said.

“It would be wonderful if the Alaska Long Trail joined those ranks,” she said. “It opens the doors to more federal funding. This is a big plus.”

Originally published by the Alaska Beacon, an independent, nonpartisan news organization that covers Alaska state government.