Business leaders to Congress: Start investing more in Tongass National Forest tourism and recreation programs
June 12, 2015
In their letter, the business leaders expressed concerned about years of declining investment for the recreation program, trails, and visitor facilities in the 17 million acre Tongass National Forest, a coastal rainforest that is the country’s largest national forest. Eighty percent of southeast Alaska’s land base is within the boundaries of the Tongass making the Forest Service the region’s predominant landowner.
Over the last six years, the level of funding Congress has set nationally for the Forest Service to manage recreation in the country’s 155 national forests has dropped by 15 percent. The decline has been even steeper for the Tongass which has suffered nearly three times the level of reductions over the same period. During a congressional budget hearing earlier this year, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell acknowledged that the Alaska Region had “taken a greater than their proportionate share of the reductions in recreation funding.”
“The Tongass’ budget for recreation directly impacts our industry from small businesses to a company as large as Princess Cruises. We all rely on the Forest Service to administer special use permits, maintain safe trails, and work with us to accommodate the growing demand from our guests for experiencing the Tongass National Forest. Tourism is one of our most important industries in this region and it needs to be built up, not neglected,” said Kirby Day, Chair of the Visitor Products Cluster Working Group (VP-CWG). The VP-CWG brings the region’s private recreation and tourism industry together with federal, state and local agencies, trade associations, economic development organizations, and other stakeholders to collaboratively identify and address industry challenges and opportunities.
“Congress could and should maximize the investment returns that Tongass tourism provides by increasing the level of Forest Service funding for visitor services rather than cutting it,” said Sherry Aitken, Tour Operations Manager of Sitka Tribe of Alaska (dba Tribal Tours). “From a business standpoint, it makes sense to prioritize the budget for programs like recreation, heritage, and wilderness – the things which draw visitors and dollars to the region.”
The industry group letter calls on the Forest Service to reconsider how it prioritizes investments and to “make a smart and prudent investment” in southeast Alaska’s tourism sector. On average the Forest Service allocates 10 percent of its discretionary budget to the Tongass Recreation, Wilderness, and Heritage program, trails, and visitor facilities. By comparison, recreation is the agency’s largest money maker generating, on average, about half of the Tongass National Forest’s annual revenue. This money is collected from commercial outfitter and guide operations, visitor centers, and other recreation facilities like cabins and campgrounds.
“The Tongass recreation staff work hard to manage and provide access for visitors and the tourism industry. But the fact is with what was an already low budget compounded by years of funding cuts, they simply don’t have adequate resources for the job. We are relying on them to provide the foundation for 5-star experiences on a shoestring budget,” said Laurie Cooper, professional guide and Tourism Industry Liaison for Trout Unlimited Alaska.
A million visitors are expected to visit Southeast Alaska this summer. According to the Alaska Department of Commerce, the visitor industry provides 20 percent of employment in southeast Alaska. Overall, the tourism industry supports 10,800 jobs in southeast Alaska, while contributing $1.09 billion in visitor spending, and $405 million in annual labor income to the region.
“Our region’s economy is underpinned by the tourism industry in terms of employment and revenue. As the principle land owner and manager in southeast Alaska, it is crucial that Congress and the Forest Service set budget priorities which recognize and complement the economic realities in the Tongass,” said Brian Holst, Executive Director of the Juneau Economic Development Council.
Edited by Mary Kauffman, SitNews
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