It was raining outside the Sitka field office when I met with state parks specialist Nick True in early November, on his last workday of the season.
“I’m not even sure how to describe my office,” True laughed. “The office is a very small part of what I do.”
Dry and warm, but somewhat clinical, with bright fluorescent lights and a few historical posters, the room didn’t give off that “lived in” feeling. True’s office is really outside: Working on trails, fixing picnic tables, and mowing lawns at one of Sitka’s seven state parks.
“I just turned in a grant,” True said. “I also cleaned an outhouse on the same day.”
But maybe there’s another reason True’s office isn’t very homey. He’s only been back in this position for 1 ½ seasons, because from 2015 to 2018, Sitka’s state parks were closed. Why? Budget cuts. Preston Kroes is the superintendent for state parks in Southeast.
“The services were discontinued and the staffing was pulled out,” Kroes said. “Basically, the decision was made by the management at the time that that was the best way to save money and deal with our shortcomings.”
Sitka’s state parks went unmanaged for almost exactly three years. During that time, the National Park Service cared for the Castle Hill site, but other state park facilities were managed and cleaned by volunteers. Sitkans even established a Facebook group, as a way to manage reservations at the Halibut Point Rec area.
When Superintendent Kroes took his position a couple of years ago, he saw an opportunity to start managing Sitka’s parks again without increasing the budget. A Juneau position became available, and Kroes pushed to get that position moved to Sitka. And halfway through the summer of 2018, specialist True was back in his old job, albeit with a bit more work — hauling off trash left behind, painting and repairing picnic tables and shelters, and clearing back three years worth of overgrown brush.
“When I was here before it was almost a turn-key situation,” True said. “I opened the office door and everything was ready to go. Coming back it was almost like reopening a new park.”
Kroes says places like Sitka and Valdez saw cuts to services in 2015 because there was a big gap between how much it costs to run their parks and the small revenue streams they were taking in compared to other state parks.
“Most of the rest of the state has a $5 a day use fee or the equivalent $50 dollar annual decal,” Kroes said. “Southeast hasn’t had that program in place.”
Until now. Starting up Sitka park management again means implementing day-use fees. The process was delayed a couple of times. But Kroes says this time it’s really happening January 1, 2020. Day passes will cost $5, or $50 for a decal for the full year, which park users can stick to their car windshields.
True, and possibly another part-time staffer will enforce the permitting and issue warnings. But Kroes said that True’s contract is only seven months out of the year, beginning in April.
“The goal is to get Nick’s position back up to be a year round position like it used to be,” said Kroes.
Kroes said a $5 day use fee at Totem Bight Park in Ketchikan has made a difference for that park’s operations, and they’re planning to institute a similar plan in Haines next year, then in Juneau. He’s hopeful that Sitkans will buy the annual decal –and soon, because the cost is bumped to $60 dollars once the new year starts.
“They’re great stocking stuffers too,” Kroes said. “It is a really good indicator that the community supports the parks and wants to see improvement and more staff or year round staff positions.”
Kroes said he can’t guarantee True’s position will ever go back to full-time, even if the new park passes are a success. Rather, True’s future rides on decisions within the administration. Kroes hopes state parks funding stays about the same for next year. They’ll know soon, Governor Mike Dunleavy will release next year’s budget by December 15.
Back in the Sitka field office, as True prepared to leave for the winter, he said there are highs and lows to every job, even this one.
“Every job out there has something that you don’t like,” he said. “Cleaning an outhouse isn’t necessarily fun. It’s not the highlight of my day, but it’s a very small part of what I do. Every day there’s something new.”
And when he gets back to the site in April, he’ll have to play a bit of catch-up — cleaning up the requisite 5 months worth of overgrown brush, pumping out a couple of outhouses, and making sure Sitkans have their state parks decals on their windshields.
You can find more information about Sitka’s new park fees here.