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Forest Service considers closure of 12 public use cabins

Some volunteers frustrated by regulations

Posted: November 8, 2013 - 1:00am
Red Alders Cabin, near Ketchikan, was crushed by a tree in 2012. The site also floods regularly, and people prefer to use the nearby Ella Narrows cabin, according to a Forest Service sum-up. Red Alders is one of the cabins the Forest Service has proposed be removed.  Photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service
Red Alders Cabin, near Ketchikan, was crushed by a tree in 2012. The site also floods regularly, and people prefer to use the nearby Ella Narrows cabin, according to a Forest Service sum-up. Red Alders is one of the cabins the Forest Service has proposed be removed.

Faced with a shrinking budget and low usage numbers in remote locations, the Forest Service is evaluating the removal of 12 of its 152 cabins in summer 2014, converting three of the 12 into three-sided shelters.

Even after the cabins’ removal, however, the organization will continue to face challenges related to funding. Meanwhile, rule changes involving chainsaws have driven away the Territorial Sportsmen, a Juneau-based organization which built and maintained cabins on Admiralty Island for more than 50 years for free.

Michelle Putz, Team Leader for the Tongass National Forest Sustainable Cabin Management Project, said the Forest Service plans to release an environmental assessment within the next month evaluating the 12 cabins along three alternatives: first, doing nothing; second, the “proposed action,” on which the service received comments in fall of 2012; and third, an alternative based on those comments and internal discussion.

The cabins slated for removal under the “proposed action” are Beaver Camp, Binkley Slough, Checats Lake, De Boer Lake, Maksoutof Lake, McGilvery, Red Alders, Rezanof Lake and Square Lake. They’re near Ketchikan, Petersburg, Sitka, Thorne Bay, Wrangell and Yakutat.

Those slated for conversion to a three-sided shelter are Big Goat (Ketchikan), Distin Lake (Admiralty) and Harvey Lake (Petersburg).

Each cabin slated for removal has different circumstances, she said.

Square Lake, near Yakutat, has dried up some, meaning it’s more difficult for people to arrive by float plane. Square Lake was booked 13 nights total over the last six years.

At another — Binkley Slough, near Wrangell — the river has moved away enough that the cabin is harder to get to, and there’s private land behind it that has been developed, she said. “It’s in wilderness, but no longer the wilderness experience,” she said. “It’s complicated.”

Over the last six years, Binkley Slough has been reserved a total of six times.

Red Alders cabin was crushed by a tree in 2012 and received no reserved use from 2010 through 2012. The three years before that, it was reserved a total of 20 times.

Some other cabins on the list have problems with their foundation, rot, or other large-scale issues, she said.

“When people talk about cabins they really care about, these aren’t the ones they’re talking about,” Putz said. “All of our cabins are in beautiful, gorgeous places, and yes, we’d really like to be able to afford them all… but funding is limited, and people don’t seem to choose these as their favorites.”

To volunteer or not to volunteer

Putz said they would “love” to have volunteers working on their cabins, but many cabin locations are remote and expensive to get to.

There are other obstacles, as well. Volunteers are essentially considered employees, and are required to have the same training as employees.

“We have a lot of rules and regulations on safety… just making sure people have all the training they need to go out in the woods with brown bears, to be on top of ladders, to use power tools,” Putz said. “It’s not easy to get through the red tape that protects us.”

Forest Service Supervisor Forrest Cole said training isn’t a “rigorous process.” Aviation safety training, for example, is required for everyone on a Forest Service flight, from the Chief of the Forest Service, to a volunteer, to, recently, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, he said.

He said that particular training takes between 30 minutes and an hour.

A larger issue for at least one volunteer group is that, several years ago, the Forest Service disallowed the use of chainsaws in designated wilderness areas.

“They fired us,” said Tom Donek, who was in charge of the group’s Admiralty Island cabin maintenance. “We used to go out and maintain the cabins. They decided a few years ago that they no longer wanted us to cut firewood, and they took our chainsaws away. They told us if we wanted to continue… we’d have to use misery whips [a two-man cross-cut saw.] Quite frankly, I couldn’t get any volunteers, so we basically had to quit.”

Donek said the Territorial Sportsmen maintained every cabin on Admiralty Island at one time or another.

In the earlier days, the group provided “everything” — transportation, food, supplies, and labor.

Later, the Forest Service would sometimes provide one aspect of the project — transportation, for example — and the Territorial Sportsmen would provide everything else, depending on the project.

“Gambier Cabin, in Gambier Bay… some of the last times we did it we’d take our own boats down there and work off our boats,” Donek said. “We provided basically everything.”

The group did complete some training, but Donek said the Forest Service “avoided” others.

“Having a 20-year-old kid tell somebody who’s been running a chainsaw for the last 30 years how to run a chainsaw just didn’t seem like something they wanted to take on,” he said.

The Territorial Sportsmen are now working with the state, something member Jack Manning is in charge of.

“We put our energy where it was welcome,” he said.

Cole said when he became supervisor about 10 years ago, there was a variety of regulations and allowances regarding chainsaws. Sometimes they could be used for firewood, sometimes not; sometimes volunteers could use them, sometimes not.

“We had the same folks volunteering or doing work on one district they couldn’t do on another,” he said.

When assessing disparities, they realized the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (passed in 1980) and the Wilderness Act (passed in 1964) say chainsaws need authorization, he said.

So they disallowed it for firewood, in part because cabins with wood-stoves were developing widening clear-cut areas around them. They also converted several cabins from wood stoves to oil.

“For the sake of consistency, and resource damage around the cabins, we basically curtailed it [in wilderness areas],” he said.

The Forest Service now allows some motor usage and disallows others on a case-by-case, site-specific basis.

Cole said he expects volunteers will take a bigger and bigger role as the Forest Service’s budget shrinks.

According to Forest Service calculations, from Oct. 1, 2012 to Sept. 30, 2013, 365 volunteers and interns worked 36,277 hours valued at $803,171. 

Manning said the Territorial Sportsmen aren’t against working with the Forest Service.

He added, however, that disallowing power tools “is how you kill a cabin. Nobody can work on it; there’s no wood; people stop using it.”

Juneau area

Recreation Program Manager for the Juneau Ranger District Ed Grossman said even the least popular cabins in the area are used frequently enough that he anticipates they’ll stay above the threshold for closure and removal.

Many Juneau cabins got more use last year, which Grossman attributes to cabin and trail upgrades, “getting the word out,” and rising fuel prices.

“The cost of getting to more remote cabins has gone up, so more and more people are enjoying our walk-in cabins,” he said.

Several Juneau cabins set use records last year. Dan Moller set what Grossman believes is a Tongass-wide record at 280 booked nights. Eagle Glacier exceeded 200 for the first time, John Muir was rented 250 nights, and Peterson Lake set a new record at 198 nights.

The district’s lowest use cabin, East Turner Lake, saw 26 rented nights. West Turner Lake, which is maintained on the same trip, saw 73 nights.

Despite high use, Grossman said the district may need to reconsider some of the amenities it provides. At five high-use cabins — Dan Moller, John Muir, Peterson Lake, Windfall Lake and Eagle Glacier — the Forest Service provides propane and, every two to three years, flies out human waste.

“I’m not sure how we could handle (waste) any differently because of the volumes involved, but it is a very expensive service offered,” he said. “In cabins near lakes or in the alpine, you can’t have 1,000 people doing their thing every year and not expect a long term impact.”

The Juneau Ranger District isn’t a designated wilderness area, so there’s no ban on power tools, but training requirements for much of the work can be an impediment to finding volunteers, said Grossman. Some of the work that requires less training is more “unpalatable,” like pumping outhouses.

Given a still-declining budget, Grossman said the only options left are to raise fees or remove amenities like propane heat.

“I don’t know what the future bears for that,” he said. “People would be pretty disappointed not having a heat source in a cabin, but it could be we have to go to where you have to take a sweater. I don’t know how we’re going to deal with it, but somehow we’re going to have to deal with it.”

Emergency use

One concern some people mention is safety: they’ve heard stories of people using a cabin during an emergency.

“We understand some of the time people use these cabins because they’re in a fix, and they need somewhere to stay that’s going to keep them safe, warm, and dry,” Putz said. She’s been in that situation herself: she and her husband once ended up using a cabin “when we didn’t intend to take a dip in the water, and the water intended for us to take a dip in it,” she said.

Friends of Admiralty Island President K.J. Metcalf, who spoke on a personal level since the organization hadn’t yet received detailed information, said he can’t think of a specific instance where someone has used a cabin during a “desperate” situation, but said he knows it has happened, particularly on ocean-front cabins.

“There’s the recreational aspect and also the fact that it could be a matter of life or death if somebody were in real need of shelter,” he said.

The Territorial Sportsmen’s 2006 letter also referenced cabins’ importance “in uncounted emergency situations.” The Territorial Sportsmen also took issue with the Forest Service’s switch from wood stoves to oil stoves, as people can gather wood, but not oil, in an emergency, Manning said.

Upcoming information

Putz said the upcoming environmental assessment will provide more information about estimated costs of removal versus maintenance, among other things.

She said people can help make sure the Forest Service’s other 140 cabins remain by helping with upkeep and spreading the word about them. They can also help by conserving firewood at remote locations, bringing their own firewood, packing out trash and paying for reservations.

“We don’t have estimates… we just know colloquially that it happens,” she said of cabin “poaching.”

“We use the cabins too, with our families, for recreation, hunting, fishing, safety… and we are sad, too, that we are in this dilemma.”

• Contact reporter Mary Catharine Martin at maryc.martin@juneauempire.com.

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