If you’re a long-time Fairbanks resident, there’s a good chance you’ve already met the new Northern Region State Parks Superintendent. Three weeks in, Ian Thomas is still somewhat new to the job, but he’s far from new to Fairbanks.
“It’s an honor to be the superintendent of the northern region overseeing park units I enjoyed so much as a kid,” he said, during an interview with the News-Miner on Thursday, before adding, “Week three … I’m a little short on coherent statements.”
Just weeks into the job, Thomas is certainly going through something of a trial by fire. Not only is he now responsible for overseeing the northern region budget, which has been slowly shrinking for years now, he’s also managing an inherently social set of facilities during a time when socializing has become a public health concern. None of this, however, is deterring Thomas, who is also excited for the many projects and duties that await him and to jump into a role that brings him full circle.
Thomas was born and raised in Fairbanks. He grew up on Chena Hot Springs Road, not far from what is now one of his key charges: The Chena River State Recreation Area. Thomas recalled driving into town as a teenager with his father, when they passed a park ranger truck heading out the road.
“Dad looked at it and said, ‘You see that? If you go to college, you could have a job like that one day,’” Thomas said. “Turns out dads are always right.”
Following high school, Thomas moved down to Anchorage to study for a bachelor’s degree at Alaska Pacific University. He graduated in 1999, but still wasn’t entirely sure what kind of a career he wanted.
“Toward the tail end of that effort I got an American Conservation Corps position at the Kenai Parks Office,” Thomas said. “That was a major turning point, because that was my first introduction to resource management.”
The position was just for the summer, but Thomas credits it as his first exposure to “completely outdoor-focused work.” Thomas went on to work seasonal jobs with the Forest Service in the Chugach National Forest for several years.
Thomas landed his first full-time field position in December 2006, when he was offered one of the three park rangers jobs for the half-a-million acre Chugach State Park. He was sent to the Public Safety Training Academy in Sitka in February and graduated in June 2007. New recruits are then sent on an eight week field training program, which sees them working across the state.
Thomas ended up staying as a Chugach Park Ranger until 2010.
“That was an absolutely incredible couple of seasons working that park,” he said, before recounting some of his more memorable experiences. “I did lots of Search and Rescue and worked in the backcountry a lot.”
Among the more indelible of these events was a search and rescue that took place in April 2009. Thomas was abruptly woken at 4 a.m. and informed that one of a pair of climbers in the Eklutna Glacier area had fallen 850 feet.
“I was asleep in the middle of the night ironically during our statewide refresher training,” Thomas said. “The details were: a climber had taken a big fall and was pretty injured.”
Thomas, a recreational climber, was very familiar with the area and those who frequent its walls and peaks. His first thought was: I hope it’s not someone I know. He met up with an Alaska State Trooper helicopter pilot and they flew into the Eklutna Ranger Station to interview the climber who called the accident in. It turned out to be someone with whom Thomas was familiar in college and the injured party was someone Thomas knew very well.
“Saw him a couple of times a week, when we’d go to classes,” he said. “We flew up the valley and landed so close that the helicopter rotors were right over his tent.”
Thomas said the guy had a broken femur, which his climbing partner had done his best to rudimentarily treat. The weather was very poor, but the rescue crew ultimately brought the injured climber to Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage.
“That was a pretty significant mission,” Thomas said.
When Thomas saw that a Chief Ranger position had opened up in Fairbanks, he applied for it and was given an offer. Thomas moved back to his hometown a few months later and began his new job in July 2010.
“It’s almost ten years ago, which went fast,” Thomas said, referring to the role as “really interesting and rewarding.”
“I mean, I’m back to my hometown as a manager and law enforcer — in park units I grew up with as a kid,” he said.
Thomas’ current role is a little different. He explained that a chief ranger is responsible for “monitoring and facilitating field operations,” and answers to the superintendent.
“While there’s an admin component it’s largely a field-based job,” he said. “The difference between that and the superintendent position is: the primary duty is to manage the budget and, in doing so, manage projects and field operations from that standpoint.”
While this sees Thomas behind a desk more often than he’s used to, he said that his years as a ranger are a big influence on his management style. Thomas said he meets his field staff very frequently and always ensures that he’s clued in to what’s happening on the ground level.
“I will always do what I can to stay connected to the field staff,” he said. “That’s very important to me.”
Of course, entering the role mid-season, Thomas was presented with some immediate challenges — one of which is numbers of staff, an issue directly tied to State Parks’ ever-shrinking budget.
“We currently have one full time maintenance position, when we have historically had two,” he said. “That makes it really a challenge to keep up with maintenance issues across the region.”
Fortunately, the region has found volunteer campground hosts for all of its facilities, while parks offices in other parts of the state are still looking. The northern region, however, is still seeking residents to fill four American Conservation Corps positions. Thomas said that usually the office created four of the six positions this year, after COVID-19 related travel restrictions prevented the out-of-staters who typically fill those positions from coming to Alaska.
“That’s the big thing. We’re steaming along, almost mid season here, and we’re still looking to hire those four positions,” Thomas said. “They will be primarily frontcountry, park maintenance, landscaping, cleaning and that sort of thing, throughout the northern region and they’ll work through Sept. 30.”
Thomas said that he anticipates State Parks facilities in the region having to increasingly rely on volunteers and members of the public to help keep the sites maintained.
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has also disrupted plans to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the State Parks, which were due to take place this summer. As it stands, any events planned for the Fairbanks area have been canceled. Thomas said that those celebrations and events may be postponed for a later date, but noted that those discussions are low on the priority list right now. There are other, more urgent issues that have arisen as a result of the pandemic.
“Because of COVID-19, we’re really struggling on finishing a partnership with the Folk School on putting a log cabin in the South Fork.”
That partnership involved the Folk School hosting a multi-week cabin-building class in March. The parts of the cabin were then supposed to be transported to the Chena River State Recreation Area, where the cabin would be constructed overlooking the South Fork of the Chena River near Nugget Creek. Thomas said they got as far as transporting the components.
“COVID-19 popped up and we had to cancel the assembly phase. Of course at that point we missed the winter backcountry access,” he said. “It could not have happened at a worse time. With everything hauled in there and access disappearing fast. We’re just hoping we can get in there and get everything assembled before the materials deteriorate.”
But there are also exciting projects that Thomas is looking forward to digging into.
“One in particular that (former superintendent Brooks Ludwig) wrote up an Recreational Trails Program grant for is repairs to 44 miles of trails in the Chena River State Rec Area,” he said.
According to Thomas, the grant has already been awarded and the completion date for the project is late 2021.
As a local who has returned, Thomas feels particularly well suited to his new job.
“I really feel like I have a good comprehensive statewide understanding of our missions and operations — and, growing up in Fairbanks, a really good understanding of the culture here and how to manage state park resources for that group,” he said.
Contact staff writer Alistair Gardiner at 459-7575. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.