The Alaska State Park System consists of 123 units spread throughout the state. Faced with $500,000 in budget cuts, the department has proposed to end field operations in Sitka and Valdez. (Map courtesy of the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation)

In the face of serious budget cuts, the Division of Parks & Outdoor Recreation has proposed closing field operation of the state parks in Sitka and Valdez.

The legislature still has to weigh in, but according to Director Ben Ellis, a tough decision had to be made.

Downloadable audio.

The State Parks Department has proposed ending on-site management of all state parks in Sitka, including Castle Hill in downtown, the Halibut Point Recreation Area, and the Starrigavan boat launch and estuary trail system.

The proposal would also affect all state parks in Valdez. Both the staff positions in Sitka and Valdez would be removed, along with the maintenance and clean-up services they provide.

The backdrop of this decision is clouded by the state’s budget woes. The House Finance Subcommittee is looking to cut $500,000 for state parks and requested options from the state parks department.

Director Ben Ellis says the department had two alternatives: either spread the half-million dollar cut around the state or close one or two areas entirely. To achieve this reduction, Ellis decided to go with the latter — with Sitka and Valdez taking almost all the cuts.

Ellis said the decision was “very difficult,” adding, “It’s like – which one of your children do you want to chop off or kill? The struggle for all of us that dealt with it, including [Commissioner Mark Myers of the Department of Natural Resources] is: Do we limit it in the area or do we look at discrete units? And it was my decision to go with discrete units.”

Ellis said the major criteria for deciding which areas to cut included self-contained areas not in population centers and parks not generating large revenues from fees. On that point, Sitka’s parks score fairly low.

KCAW: What would you say to people in Sitka and Valdez who feel perhaps picked on? Like, you picked us . Why didn’t you share these cuts across the state?
Ellis: You know, I totally understand. I understand the frustration. It was just a decision that I made for the greater good of all the state parks operations. We’re that strapped with financial issues.

Ellis says closing the state parks in Sitka would save $133,000. In addition to closing state parks in Sitka and Valdez, the proposal would eliminate one ranger position in Wood Tik-Chik State Park near Dillingham.

Ellis said, “This is not something I would like to do. It is not any reflection on any of the employees that are being affected. And if this does come to pass I will work very hard to get these areas reinstated as soon as I can.”

Under the proposal, the closed parks would go in to passive management. There would be no staff present and supervisors would visit the areas of Sitka and Valdez from Juneau and Soldotna respectively.

For Sitka, that responsibility would fall to Chief Ranger for Southeast, Kevin Murphy.

Murphy said the decision would affect how he manages Southeast. He said, “A lot of those legislatively designated parks they’re required by the legislature to have some active management on. That will mean I’ll have to come over to Sitka a little more often than I have in the past and check up.”

The affected parks in Sitka, all 7 of them encompassing over 4,000 acres, would include four legislatively designated marine parks. They are the Fort Rousseau Causeway Site, Sealion Cove, Magoun Islands, and the Big Bear/Baby Bear State Marine Parks.

The parks system also includes three road system areas, which are the Old Sitka Complex, which includes the boat launch and Starrigavan Trail System; the Halibut Point Recreation Area and the public use day shelter there; and Castle Hill, the site of the 1867 transfer of Alaska to the United States.

The proposal is now before the House Finance Committee.