WASHINGTON — Alaska's outdoor outfitters no longer have to worry about paying higher wages to backcountry workers after a new directive from the White House.
President Donald Trump issued an executive order revoking part of an Obama administration rule that required outdoor guiding companies with permits to operate on federal lands to pay workers higher wages.
Advocates for the guides said the nature of their work — taking customers into the wilderness, often for days or weeks — made the pay requirements unworkable.
The rule would have required a minimum wage for seasonal backcountry guides, who technically are on duty 24 hours a day when they are leading trips. Paying someone a minimum wage 24 hours a day, seven days a week could escalate costs quickly and lead to overtime requirements.
"The order will have a positive effect on rural economies and American families, allowing guides and outfitters to bring tourists out on multiday hiking, fishing, hunting, and camping expeditions, without enduring costly burdens," Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said in a statement. "The outdoor recreation sector is a multibillion-dollar economic engine, and the more people able to enjoy our public lands, the better."
The order, released just before the Memorial Day weekend, was effective immediately. But generally, the new executive order limited the reach of a regulation that had not yet impacted Alaska's outdoor guides.
President Barack Obama issued an order in 2014 requiring federal contractors to pay an hourly wage of $10.10. That included private companies with permits to take people onto public lands. The new executive order exempts private companies from the higher hourly minimum.
But because of a slow rollout of the rule, Alaska's tour operators had not yet felt the pinch of the higher wage requirements.
The rule "came into effect in 2015," but "Congress passed a provision in the (fiscal year 2016) appropriations bill which abated any implementation for seasonal recreational businesses," said David Brown, vice president of government affairs for the American Outdoors Association. So for the most part, Trump's new order prevented wage hikes rather than reversing them.
But the same provision did not make it into subsequent budget packages, Brown said, and new pay requirements had just "started popping up in commercial-use authorizations" offered to contractors by the National Park Service. Some outfitters had already sold trip packages based on previous wage rates and were left swallowing the price difference, he said.
"It becomes something of an accounting nightmare in the backcountry, because guides have to keep logs. … It was going to require some significant revisions of some trips," Brown said.
So far, changed contracts had emerged in Big Bend National Park in Texas and in Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, Brown said.
The rule "never got implemented" in Alaska, according to Rod Arno, executive director of the Alaska Outdoor Council.
"Everyone that I've talked to and who I've known said it never came about. They never paid it," Arno said.
But he said the change was welcome and corrected an "oversight" of the original regulation. It costs a lot to send employees out into the wilderness, "so they're not going to bring two other people to take the other two shifts in a 24-hour day," he said.
Federal contractors who provide lodging and food services on federal lands are not exempt from the Obama-era rule. (The Department of Labor raised that minimum wage to $10.35 in September.)
Alaska has eight national parks, 16 wildlife refuges and 222 million acres of federal land.
More than 1.8 million people visited Alaska between May and September 2016, according to the most recent estimates offered in a report by the Alaska Travel Industry Association. Those visitors spent nearly $2 billion that summer. Roughly half a million travelers purchased multiday packages in 2016 to visit fishing lodges, wilderness lodges, adventure tours and other activities, according to the report.