Alaska State Parks soon to implement user fees

Day use fees and an end to camping at Portage Cove are among a number of measures that Alaska State Parks is preparing to implement at its Haines parks, as the state looks to bolster revenue and improve management.

The state will institute day use and boat launch fees at its park units in Haines within the next two seasons, Southeast parks superintendent Preston Kroes told the CVN this week. And at the end of the current season, the state will no longer allow camping at Portage Cove State Recreation Site, which will shift into a facility intended only for day use, Kroes said.

Haines Borough tourism director Steven Auch said “for a multitude of reasons” he points visitors to the Portage Cove campground, which is the only public tent-camping site within a few miles of town. “It’s a perfect fit for people who want to be in town without having to go far,” he said.

Also on the state’s agenda is opening the Chilkat State Park cabin for nightly public-use rentals in the off-season — as early as this winter, Kroes said — and installing an outhouse at the Mosquito Lake campground, which as been under “passive management” for several years due to budget restraints.

The move to establish user fees would be region-wide and intended to generate revenue from state parks across Southeast.

There has long been talk that the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation would charge for facility use at Chilkat State Park and Chilkoot Lake State Recreation Site, but Southeast has remained the only region without those fees since the state instituted them on a region-by-region basis in 1998.

“It’s definitely coming, and it’s even visible on the horizon,” Kroes said.

Alaska Department of Natural Resources spokesperson Lorraine Henry said Southeast is the last region to implement fees “because of unique challenges with how geographically spread out the State Parks are.”

At parks outside of Southeast, day use permits cost $5 per vehicle, and annual passes covering all parks can be purchased for $60. The daily boat launch fee, which includes day use, is $15. User fees account for 47% of the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation budget, Henry said.

Kroes anticipated the Haines area parks would implement them in 2023. “I’ll guarantee if it’s not next season, it’ll be the year after,” he said.

There would be pay stations at Chilkat State Park, Chilkoot Lake and Portage Cove recreation sites, possibly at some of the pull-offs in the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve and the Mosquito Lake site if it re-opens, Kroes said. The $60 annual decal would cover day-use costs at all the parks in Haines and across the state.

Collection of fees would be geared to create revenue for a state agency that has been struggling with low staffing and limited funds. Kroes said that with the new revenue source it’s “very likely our budget will increase and hopefully staffing, too.”

Jess Kayser Forster, a frequent Haines parks user, said she personally would be fine paying user fees if she knew the money would be reinvested in local facilities, but she worries about the barrier they could create for low-income families.

“I really believe that outdoor recreation is a fundamental component of community and self-wellness, and therefore we need to promote access for people of all economic backgrounds,” she said.

As with user fees, the decision to prohibit camping at Portage Cove is intended to alleviate budget and management issues. “We get very limited revenue generated from camping (there), but the costs we put forth outweigh the revenue,” Kroes said. “Our biggest operational costs are trash services and outhouses. Having campers (at Portage Cove) is definitely impacting those things.”

Kroes also said people don’t always abide by the campground’s regulations, often parking vehicles at the site, which is for non-motorized campers only. He determined the site isn’t “conducive” to camping and is better suited for day use — for people to picnic, throw frisbees and even host pre-approved weddings and other events, he said.

Portage Cove is the only public camping area designed for non-motorized users in town. There are a few tent sites at Oceanside RV park. Chilkoot Lake and Chilkat State Park are the next closest campgrounds for visiting tent-sleepers. “It will be a hit because it is the closest and easiest campground for those cyclists and non-vehicle guests,” Auch said. “Now if they’re in town – where do they go?”

Ely, who founded Sockeye Cycle, also said he recommends the Portage Cove campground to bikepackers. He called it “best place to camp near town” and suggested the borough take a position in favor of keeping the campground open.

Bill Zack, who served as Haines’ ranger for a couple decades until 2002, spent his first-ever night in Haines camping at Portage Cove, in 1980. “It was one of those beautiful days. I thought I had died and gone to heaven,” he said.

He added parks managers “would have their job cut out for them” trying to keep people from camping at Portage Cove in the future.

As the division of parks prepares for its changes, the Haines office remains without a full-time ranger — a vacancy that has lasted since Travis Russell, now a Haines Police officer, left the post last fall. Kroes said the state recently put out a hiring announcement that had been delayed by several months due to administrative challenges and understaffing.

For the first time, Kroes said, the state is hiring to fill several vacant ranger positions through a single application process to attract candidates who otherwise would have to submit a separate application for each position. There are four vacancies statewide — in Anchorage, Soldotna and Kodiak, along with Haines.

For several weeks last spring, Alaska State Parks lacked a full-time employee in Haines, where there are four active park units. But the division hired a new technician early in the summer and Kroes made several trips to Haines to fill in for several weeks at a time.

A different park ranger, Jared Walter, was in town for the last three weeks as part of his field training before moving on to his station at Chugach State Park. Walter wrapped up his time in Haines on Tuesday.