Last month, the Alaska Travel Industry Association’s (ATIA) board of directors, which is composed of statewide tourism business and industry leaders, passed a resolution urging Alaska’s congressional leaders and the U.S. Forest Service to take swift action to address the critical decline in federal investments for the Tongass recreation program. The ATIA resolution also called for increased investment that would allow the Forest Service to successfully carry out important planning, management and monitoring responsibilities.
For those not familiar with the Tongass Recreation Program, it encompasses not only major Alaska landmarks such as Juneau’s Mendenhall Glacier and surrounding recreation area, but also the many campgrounds, hiking trails and visitor centers across America’s largest National Forest.
ATIA, including our members from around the state, appreciate U.S. Sen. Mark Begich’s timely and proactive response to our call for action.
Recently, as the busy tourism season kicked off in Alaska, Begich championed the state’s travel industry and highlighting its economic importance at a U.S. Senate Appropriations Interior and Environment Subcommittee hearing in Washington, D.C. At the hearing, Begich observed the Southeast Alaska travel industry is “big business” as an economic driver and job creator in the region.
Tourism is the largest private-sector employer in Southeast Alaska. According to a report released by the state in January, of the estimated 39,000 visitor industry related jobs in Alaska, 28 percent (or 10,900 jobs) are in Southeast. Additionally, more than a million out-of-state visitors travel to Southeast Alaska each year, supporting growth in local economies and generating more than $1.1 billion in annual spending.
Also at theSenate hearing, Tom Tidwell, chief of the Forest Service, testified that recreation “provides more economic activity and supports more jobs than all the other activities on our national forest put together.” Yet funding for recreation programs on Forest Service lands in Alaska is being cut by twice as much as in the rest of the country. Forest Service funding for recreation programs is down 15 percent nationwide but has been slashed by twice as much in Alaska. Over the past five years, recreation funding for the Tongass is down an astounding 42 percent.
As a result of the across-the-board funding cuts, the Forest Service is deciding how to downsize its recreation program and is initiating a “decommissioning program” that will close certain facilities and could limit access to public lands. These lands are not only important to Alaskans but are also essential to the 240 travel-related businesses and sole proprietors who hold special use permits to operate on the Tongass.
Nearly 80 percent of the land in Southeast Alaska is within the Tongass National Forest, and people come from all over the world to experience its incredible scenery and abundant fish and wildlife. Without access to Forest Service lands, staff to oversee and administer permits and funding to maintain and improve visitor facilities, the foundation for the travel industry in Southeast Alaska will erode and become a barrier to industry growth.
ATIA members welcome all Alaskans in our efforts to remind the Forest Service that now is not the time to divest in tourism in Alaska. As the foremost landowner in Southeast Alaska, the Forest Service should invest in those programs, which produce the majority of jobs and greatest economic benefit. On the Tongass, this means the Forest Service needs to reverse its concerning history of cuts and instead build up recreation programs to improve the infrastructure that benefits residents, supports tourism businesses and the growing number of visitors Southeast Alaska welcomes every year.
• Sarah Leonard is president and CEO of the Alaska Travel Industry Association.