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Not the time to close the cabins

Posted: November 29, 2013 - 1:05am

I am the owner and operator of a small water taxi and wildlife viewing business in Sitka. About half of my business involves taxiing people to Forest Service cabins in the Sitka area. Some of these people are locals who don’t own a boat or do not have enough capacity on their own boat, others are out-of-state visitors who want to experience a type of solitude and wilderness recreation they can’t find anywhere else. My guests include people of all ages. Some are experienced back-country campers who also like the unique type of recreation offered by a cabin, while others may not be so inclined or even able to spend a night in a tent and are grateful to have the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors with their families in a remote cabin setting. Regardless of who they are, the unanimous sentiment when I pick them up and bring them back to town is that they loved their cabin experience!

Like many people, I was concerned when I learned the Forest Service is considering scaling back its Tongass Forest cabin program and closing some of its lesser-used cabins. I understand that the cabin program is not revenue positive, but I hope that decision-makers in the Forest Service realize the cabins are a valuable part of the $1 billion tourism economy in Southeast Alaska and, perhaps more importantly, something that many of us who live here cherish.

I’ve heard the Forest Service statistics that some of the most remote cabins are used as little as 10 times a year and that it is costly to maintain buildings that mostly sit empty. However, the Tongass timber program costs the Forest Service more than $23 million annually, which results in far greater financial loss and continued controversy compared to spending $1.1 million now on its recreation facilities budget. This is a substantial funding disparity considering recreation is a far greater segment of the Southeast economy than timber and considering that the Forest Service has committed to shifting its focus away from large old-growth timber sales and toward recreation and multiple uses of the forest.

Over the last two decades, the Southeast timber industry has shrunk to a tiny fraction of its former size while the tourism industry has grown substantially and now, whether measured in earnings or jobs, far surpasses the void left by the shrinking timber economy. In a world where solitude is harder and harder to come by, I can only imagine that more people are going to be visiting the Tongass in the future to seek remote recreation opportunities. The heavily used cabins will incur even more use while the more remote cabins, the cabins currently on the chopping block, will become increasingly valuable to people willing to make the extra effort to get away from it all. One of the Forest Service’s goals is to provide a quality wilderness experience, but by reducing cabin availability, people will inevitably be turned away as cabins are booked solid. The family that only can afford to make one cabin trip a year may miss out on those memories. The adventure and solitude seekers that want to explore the further reaches of the Tongass will grow increasingly frustrated when only the closer, more popular cabins are kept open.

The tourism and visitor industry is now the greatest source of private jobs in Southeast Alaska, and we should be investing in maintaining and improving the recreation facilities that form the foundation for this growing industry. This is not the time to be closing cabins.

• Ryan Kauffman is the owner and operator of Aquatic Alaska Adventures LLC in Sitka.

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