Alaska can make lemonade out of lemons from the COVID-19 pandemic. You can help.
The federal government is considering another economic relief package. Let’s steer some of that funding to outdoor access projects.
In and around Fairbanks we have quite a few opportunities to access the wilderness, such as those in the Chena River State Recreation Area, White Mountains National Recreation Area, Denali National Park, and the Alaska and Brooks range mountains.
But we still have room for more access projects, such as trails, boat ramps, and public use cabins. Not all projects have to open up new areas. Some can simply improve access to areas already being used.
Whatever the project, any development needs to be done carefully so that we don’t lose Alaska’s wild grandeur. If done properly, everyone from large tour operators to local residents can benefit.
Expanded visitor industry
Our economy is too oil dependent. We need to diversify more. Expanding our visitor industry is one way to do that. Eventually this pandemic will be under control and people will be traveling freely again. Alaska will still have a wilderness mystique. People will still come to see mountains, wildlife, glaciers, and miles and miles of untamed wilderness. We can give them more opportunities.
Doing so would benefit large tour companies, but it would also help smaller operators such as river rafting tours, snowmachine tours, fishing guides, and dog mushing tours. No matter the size, these businesses can all benefit from outdoor access projects.
Local economic benefits
Tour operators won’t be the only ones to benefit. Visitors from in and out of Alaska spend money at local establishments. People need food, last-minute equipment, and maybe a place to stay. They hear about a popular coffee shop, nightclub, restaurant, or brewery and want to try it out.
And locals engaged in outdoor recreation usually buy their equipment and supplies locally. They need gas for their snowmachines, parts for their bikes, new hiking boots, hunting ammunition, maybe a new boat. All that spending boosts our local economy.
Local quality of life
Not least of all, outdoor recreation projects improve access for locals to wild places in our backyards. How many of us have spent time relaxing in the White Mountains National Recreation Area or the Chena River State Recreation Area? An increasing visitor industry does put more strain on these resources, but with proper management, we can all enjoy them.
And many studies have shown that spending time in nature and exercising are good for our mental and physical health. Everyone benefits from a happier, healthier population.
Strong public process
But new development has to be done carefully. We want to encourage a healthy economy, but we also don’t want so many developments in an area that it no longer feels wild. Any such projects should go through a rigorous vetting process with ample public comment. More government red tape? Perhaps, but it’s there for a reason. Not everyone will agree on any particular project, but we can at least come to some sort of a consensus through a robust public process.
We already have programs that have worked for years to improve access to Alaska’s wild areas. The Recreational Trails Program has helped build trails. The Land and Water Conservation Fund and the National Park Service’s Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program have helped with a variety of outdoor access projects. The Pittman-Robertson Act, which is primarily for hunters, funds projects that benefit many users, such as trailhead improvements and habitat protection. We should ask for increased funding or reduced local match funding for one or more of these programs. Doing so would benefit Alaska with programs that already have rigorous vetting processes.
How you can help
Call or write to our Washington delegation (contact information below). Let them know you support funding for outdoor access projects that benefit both the visitor industry and local citizens.
You can also join with the Alaska Outdoor Alliance, an outdoor industry support group. The alliance is spearheading an advocacy campaign to make sure COVID-19 stimulus funding includes outdoor recreation projects. Read about its campaign here: www.alaskaoutdooralliance.org/post/alaska-outdoor-stimulus-request.
A better future
Let’s take advantage of any increased federal funding by making sure it helps improve access to our outdoor resources through programs that have a strong public process. Doing so will help our statewide visitor industry, boost our local economy, and improve our quality of life.
Congressional contact information:
Sen. Lisa Murkowski: www.murkowski.senate.gov/contact
Sen. Dan Sullivan: www.sullivan.senate.gov/contact
Rep. Don Young: https://donyoung.house.gov/contact/
Eric Troyer is a Fairbanks-area freelance writer who publishes the free monthly Interior Trails Newsletter. To be included on the newsletter distribution list, email him at email@example.com