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Empire Editorial: Public-use depends on public cooperation

Posted: November 10, 2013 - 1:09am

It’s likely that 12 of Southeast Alaska’s 152 public-use cabins will either be closed, torn down or converted to shelters by next summer, the U.S. Forest Service has said.

At the heart of the issue is money: money for repairs, maintenance and overall upkeep, which adds up when considering the remote locations of some of the cabins. Also part of the issue is that some of the Forest Service’s staunchest allies in the past, who helped keep the cabins in working order by providing thousands of man hours on top of financial contributions, went separate ways over how the cabins needed to be cared for.

Some of the cabins considered for closure need to go away. The Red Alders Cabin near Ketchikan has been uninhabitable since a tree fell and crushed it in 2012. Others reportedly have problems with rot, weak foundations and an assortment of other issues that bring user safety into the equation. The Forest Service’s safety concerns cannot be taken too lightly. If someone were injured because a ceiling, wall or floor gave away, the Forest Service would be left holding the blame.

Michele Putz, team leader for the Tongass National Forest Sustainable Cabin Management Program, said the 12 cabins under consideration aren’t regularly used. For a comparison, the Square Lake cabin near Yakutat has been booked 13 nights during the last six years, compared to Juneau’s Dan Moller cabin, which set a Tongass-wide record last year with 280 bookings.

That isn’t to say more cabins couldn’t be affected in the future, especially considering the Forest Service’s budgetary constraints aren’t likely to go away. The cost for propane to heat some of the cabins, many of which have been converted from wood-burning furnaces, will still be there, as will be the time and energy needed to perform regular building maintenance. Looking ahead that means either the cost for renting a cabin will increase, or amenities like propane heat will decrease, according to the Juneau Ranger District.

Volunteer support has and will continue to make a large impact in the upkeep of the cabins. In the last year, 365 volunteers and interns worked 36,277 hours for the Forest Service, valued at $803,171, according to Forest Service figures. That’s the equivalent of 17 additional full-time employees working year-round. The Forest Service could have even more help if rules involving the use of power tools were more consistent.

The Territorial Sportsmen worked to maintain many of the cabins located throughout the Tongass. According to Territorial Sportsmen President Tom Donek, his group has maintained every cabin on Admiralty Island at one time or another. The group even built and gifted to the Forest Service some of the cabins currently in use.

Donek said people stopped volunteering after they were told chainsaws and other power tools could no longer be used. Not using power tools “is how you kill a cabin,” Donek said. “Nobody can work on it; there’s no wood; people stop using it.” The Territorial Sportsmen used to provide everything from food and firewood to supplies and labor. Since they were forced to give up their power tools, the group has been working more closely with state government than federal.

Forest Service Supervisor Forest Cole said the use of machine tools varies depending on a cabin’s location and also on a case-by-case basis. Language in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (passed in 1980) and the Wilderness Act (passed in 1964) requires the use of chainsaws be authorized. “For the sake of consistency, and resource damage around the cabins, we basically curtailed it (in wilderness areas),” he said.

Cole is correct in that the Forest Service can’t have third parties running free and chopping down wilderness areas at will, but we also aren’t clear if that was ever a problem in the first place. Cole said he expects volunteers to play a larger role in the future as his budget shrinks. We hope so, but are skeptical how long those volunteers will last if efficiency is lacking.

It’s our hope the Forest Service and the Territorial Sportsmen can find a compromise that would lead to more consistency in the use of power tools as they apply to the upkeep of public use cabins. The Forest Service needs the community’s support if it is to continue providing a safe shelter for those wanting to enjoy a wilderness retreat or in need of emergency shelter. Ensuring that the remaining 140 cabins stay open will take a joint effort between the Forest Service and Southeast residents.

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