Sun to set on Forest Service Cabins

Federal government to close 47 over the next five years

Posted: Sunday, January 01, 2006

A red caboose parked several yards from the tracks near Skagway is outfitted with bunk beds and a stove. For the railroad buff or curious hiker, an overnight stay is a milestone.

The caboose also is one of 47 cabins and shelters on a list of places to be closed or decommissioned in the next five years by the U.S. Forest Service.

The federal government says maintenance on all of its 196 cabins and shelters in Southeast Alaska costs much more than the dollars provided in the annual budget.

The Tongass National Forest receives about $1.9 million from Washington, D.C., and collects nearly $582,000 from fees to maintain the cabins. But operating and annual maintenance costs equal $3.35 million, and that doesn't include another estimated $3.75 million in deferred maintenance costs.

"What winds up happening is this number gets bigger," said Mike Dilger, a trails and cabin manager for Admiralty Island, about the deferred maintenance costs.

The Forest Service has little choice but to decommission cabins that are less frequented, said Ron Marvin, the service's recreation staff manager. They expand throughout the Tongass National Forest from Ketchikan to Yakutat.

All cabins and shelters were given a score based on 15 criteria that included the number of visits, proximity to wildlife, glaciers and mountains, and other factors.

Skater's Cabin near the Mendenhall Glacier was the highest ranked overnight cabin with a score of 89. Other places near Juneau such as the Windfall Lake cabin, the Berners Bay cabin, the John Muir cabin and ones near Taku inlet have the word "operate" next to their names in the five-year plan.

Many places set for closure or decommission are on Admiralty Island. These cabins were built in the 1930s, and some are on old canoe routes that made it possible for the paddlers to visit without needing a tent, Dilger said.

Public hearings on the five-year plan will be held in Juneau and elsewhere in Southeast Alaska between January and March.

"This is a living, breathing plan," Marvin said. "It could change every year."

Closure may not be the fate for some cabins if volunteers or the private sector want to take over the maintenance costs. Marvin favors letting outdoor guides and tour operators take over ones set for closing.

Roof repairs, replacing broken windows, sweeping and discarding trash are some of the routine maintenance needs. Bears can do their share of damage to the cabin, but guests also have an impact by accidentally or intentionally breaking fixtures in the cabins.

Windows are commonly broken when a camper sets a candle too close to the glass surface on cold nights, Dilger said.

Incidents of vandalism are rare but do occur, Marvin said.

Annual maintenance costs vary from $5,000 to $12,000 for each cabin. The costs are high because workers often fly to the areas for upkeep, Marvin said. Reaching some of the more remote cabins by float plane can cost the Forest Service or the camper $1,000 one way, which is why Marvin said they are less frequented and maintained.

A non-Alaska visitor may pay the thousands of dollars required to reach the cabins to have a "once-in-a-lifetime" experience of being in a remote area and near wildlife, Marvin said. But locals are less likely to pay those costs.

Most of Southeast Alaska's visitors are cruise ship passengers who do not have time to stay in cabins during their trips, Marvin said.

Dilger said Forest Service crews try to save money by making repairs on cabins while also working on trails during their eight- to 10-day excursions.

"Any comments we get from users are extremely helpful," Dilger said. The public informing the Forest Service of problems can save crews extra trips to the cabins.

The Windfall Lake cabin costs $13,000 a year to maintain because of its number of visits. The cabin is reserved an average of 200 nights per year and the Forest Service does upkeep on the site twice a month.

The Taku cabin gets less than 20 visits a year because of it's remoteness, but will remain in operation because of its closeness to the Taku Glacier, Marvin said.

The Denver Caboose cabin is closing because of few visits, Marvin said. It averages about 20 visits per year.

• Andrew Petty can be reached at andrew.petty@juneauempire.com



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