In a unique agreement, a local volunteer organization formally partnered with the U.S. Forest Service to help maintain cabins and trails in Alaska’s two national forests.
Trail Mix Inc., a nonprofit that maintains trails around Juneau, formalized an agreement with the Forest Service on Monday to leverage their combined resources. For at least the next five years, Trail Mix will assist the Forest Service in maintaining 231 Public Use Cabins and 1,100 miles of trail across the 22 million acres of National Forest land in the Tongass and Chugach National Forests.
Wildfires in the Lower 48 have cut into Forest Service recreation budgets, halving resources in the past seven years. Volunteer organizations have become essential in maintaining cabins and trails, according to Forest Service Regional Partnership Coordinator George Schaaf, as the agency currently spends 52 percent of its money fighting wildfires.
“The impacts of wildfire down south are directly impacting operations here. ... We still have the same number of Public Use Cabins, the same miles of trails, we just have about half as much money in resources to maintain them,” Schaaf said in an interview Wednesday. “One of the strategies we’ve had to develop is how are we going to work with communities, how are we going to work with partners and the public to steward the national forest, to steward recreational resources. … Recently, without partners, without volunteers, without communities we are not going to be able to maintain all these facilities.”
Since its inception in 1993, Trail Mix has collaborated with the Forest Service on Juneau trails including the Herbert River trail, the Treadwell Ditch trail and the Peterson Lake trail.
With the agreement, Trail Mix can bypass certain formalities they previously had to deal with when working on federal land. The partnership allows the Forest Service to develop projects with Trail Mix on an annual basis, and extends their partnership from the Tongass, in Southeast, to the Chugach National Forest near Valdez.
“If we approach a forester in a region that’s never heard of Trail Mix, we can be like, ‘look, I’ve got this master agreement, it’s been signed by the director of Region 10,’” Trail Mix Executive Director Erik Boraas said. “It just clarifies things, so people know exactly what they’re getting into.”
Boraas said Trail Mix will continue to focus on Juneau-area projects, but will have access to more federal grants. Trail Mix will expand to the Chugach National Forest in coming years, but it doesn’t have any immediate plans of sending Juneau-based volunteers north.
The flexibility of being a nonprofit will help Trail Mix adjust on a yearly basis, something that isn’t easy for a federal agency.
“It’s nice being a small nonprofit because we can be nimble. We can look at the beginning of the summer and say, ‘look, we’ve got this project there or this project there,’ and if we need to hire 15 instead of 11 we can do that and have them be down in Prince of Wales, for instance, for part of the summer,” Boraas said. “Rather than stretching ourselves thin, this will allow us to expand out. … We’ll get bigger but in a very controlled way.”
The partnership requires both parties to bring funds to the table, according to Schaaf, and is far from a simple contract.
“This isn’t a situation where we are just paying an organization to do the work,” Schaaf said. “Everybody is bringing something to the table and we are both working in partnership to get the project done. This agreement allows us to take the money and resources we have and make them go further by working with volunteers and communities to get these projects done.”
Trail Mix will contribute volunteers, donation money and networking expertise while gaining access to grant money and Forest Service resources.
With budget concerns affecting Alaska’s land managers at many levels, Schaaf said the Forest Service’s partnership with Trail Mix may be just the start of a landslide of similar partnerships.
“I think as you see other land managers facing the same challenges that the Forest Service is facing when it comes to budgets,” Schaaf said, “I think everyone is going to start looking to partners and working with communities to get the job done maintaining public lands.”
• Contact Sports editor and Outdoors reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 or firstname.lastname@example.org.