Preserving a 'public treasure'

Regional nonprofit organization aims to revitalize public use cabins on the Tongass National Forest

Posted: Friday, December 04, 2009

Among the 17 million acres that makes up the Tongass National Forest sit over a hundred tiny cabins that have seen hikers come and go, hunters hundle around steaming stoves, families as they grow and been the backdrop for countless memories cultivated by users near and far. Their walls have certainly heard stories told by "old timers" and have weathered all that mother nature has to offer.

But like anything, the cabins are aging. Some are even facing closure.

So in an effort to help preserve the cabins for future generations, regional supporters have come together to form a new nonprofit they've dubbed the "Friends of the Tongass Cabins." Members of the group stretch from Juneau to Sitka, from Petersburg to Wrangell, and south to Ketchikan and even California.

George Doyle, president of the group that formed in October, said there's always been individuals throughout Southeast who are interested in supporting, maintaining and contributing to the sustainability of the cabins in the Tongass National Forest.

"The cabins are just a structure, but they're a structure that allows people to get out into national forest lands," he said. "It provides unique recreation opportunities for people that can't afford their own cabin or those that want to have a semi-remote wilderness experience."

In 2008, 22,623 people visited the Tongass cabins, according to the National Recreation Reservations system that handles reservations for the Forest Service.

Jon Martin, recreation staff officer for the U.S. Forest Service, said he's excited about the new partnership because it will help maintenance needs for some cabins and keep others from slipping through the cracks.

"(The U.S. Forest Service) sees this as a way to help, especially with cabins that are isolated," he said. "It's costly to get out to them and ... our budgets have been such that we haven't been able to maintain them to the standard we would like."

Until now, there has never been a group whose sole purpose was to work as a liaison between the U.S. Forest Service, local groups and individuals who want to volunteer time, supplies or money to help keep these cabins in working order.

Doyle said the driving goal of the "friends" is to do just that.

"The idea is to work with local communities and agencies and the forest service to develop (things like) 'Adopt-a-cabin,'" he said.

Still in its infant stages, this program would function like the common "Adopt-a-road," but Doyle stressed that this and other ideas are new and still in the planning stages.

A few projects have come to fruition, however. The group has already completed two new cabin projects in Sitka and Wrangell, and are currently working with the Forest Service and SAGA to hold a similar two-week cabin-building "course" on Prince of Wales Island in Thorne Bay.

It might seem ironic, however, that new cabins are being constructed while others don't receive the maintenance attention they need. Martin said it's an experiment and one that has, so far, been a success.

"We're testing a new niche," he said. "It's really a pilot project. We're gong to try out a few of them and see. We're looking at what people want and need, and what they can afford."

Martin said the new Starr Creek Cabin in Sitka has been booked solid since its completion, and while the user fee might be high (around $50 a night), it hasn't seemed to be a deterrent.

Joe Parrish, executive director and founder of SAGA, is a Juneau member of the "friends" and is also the current vice president. He believes the partnership between the Forest Service, SAGA and the FTC is a natural fit.

"The partnership's been great (and) it's one that keeps feeding itself," he said. "When the call comes in that there's a 'broken window at X cabin' there is now someone to get the ball rolling."

Parrish is referring to what he calls "local chapters" of the FTC. The group's goal is to have individuals throughout the Southeast region who can mobilize if a cabin in their area needs attention. There's currently an AmeriCorp member in Wrangell who will do just that if the need arises.

But it's not just users that benefit from the efforst of the FTC. Youth involved with SAGA, and the work they do together with the "friends" and the Forest Service, will take home not only an AmeriCorp education award, but also a lifelong experience they won't soon forget, Parrish said.

"It creates a sense of stewardship for public lands, which in turn reduces vandalism and reduces the need for future maintenance," he said. "It's a win, win, win scenario."

On the group's Website, friendsofthetongasscabins.org, recent cabin users can fill out a "site condition survey." This form has various fields that touch on the overall condition of the cabin to help the "friends" and the Forest Service identify areas that need attention.

• Contact Abby Lowell at abby.lowell@juneauempire.com.



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