From 2004 to 2014, the Forest Service lost 46 percent of its funding for recreation funds for Alaska’s two national forests, the Tongass and Chugach.
Recreation budgets have remained flat, said USFS Regional Partnership Coordinator George Schaaf. The financial burden is due to the rising cost of forest fires in the Lower 48.
The cost of fighting wildfires down south now consumes about half of the Forest Service’s annual budget. In the next few years, “if nothing changes,” Schaaf added, forest fires will consume about two-thirds of the annual budget.
The funding squeeze has caused the USFS to think creatively about how it funds recreation in Alaska, a big draw for locals and visitors alike.
“We simply don’t have the resources to do it alone, and at the same time those trails and cabins are really important to the people here,” Schaaf said.
With over 2 million people visiting the Alaska National Forests every year and reservations for the USFS’ Public Use Cabins filling up months in advance, Schaaf said the USFS saw a path forward by leveraging local interest to make federal funding stretch further.
The result is the Alaska Forest Fund, a nonprofit charter of the Forest Service under the umbrella of the National Forest Foundation. The AFF celebrated its first full year of project work on Tuesday at the Alaska State Library.
During its first year of work, the AFF has helped generate $381,000 in funds for trail restoration, conservation initiatives and cabin renovations, most of that going to projects on the Tongass.
So far, the AFF has $869,000 on tap for projects in the coming fiscal year. It’s a funding scheme Schaaf credits with opening up untapped resources for the Forest Service.
“One of the reasons we like working with the National Forest Fund is they are chartered by Congress as our official charter, so they are able to do things we can’t do, which is work directly with corporations and foundations,” Schaaf said.
It works this way, Schaaf explained: The Forest Service provides funds to the AFF, which is challenged to partner with businesses and nonprofits to find at least a 1-1 match of those funds.
“Essentially, the Forest Service provides a list of projects and needs to NFF and they take that information to their donors and the public,” Schaaf said. “Once they identify a donor that wants to support a project, they make it happen.”
So far, Tongass National Forest has benefitted from the lion’s share of AFF initiatives. Five of six the AFF’s first year projects have been in the Tongass.
One of those projects is the Angoon Youth Conservation Corps, a summer program for Alaska Native youth, sponsored by Hecla Charitable Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Hecla Mining Company which owns Greens Creek Mine near Juneau.
The program provided four youth from Angoon paid summer employment maintaining trails, gathering marine debris and building an outhouse.
• Contact reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 or firstname.lastname@example.org