Eager campers could find themselves barred from some of the most beautiful sites on the Kenai Peninsula at the height of the summer season if budget cuts approved Monday by the Alaska House of Representatives become law.
In a vote strictly along party lines, House Republicans passed House Bill 403, the controversial 2003 state operating budget, and sent the measure to the Senate. Included in that bill is a proposal to cut $1.06 million from the parks management budget of the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation, a nearly 20 percent reduction in current spending.
To make ends meet, the division would likely have to close some 28 state recreation areas, recreation sites and historical preserves -- almost a quarter of the 121 recreation units managed under the Department of Natural Resources. Among those would be Captain Cook, Johnson Lake, Clam Gulch and Anchor River state recreation areas, as well as Kasilof River and Stariski Creek state recreation sites.
Only boat launch ramps paid for by federal dollars to provide access to sport fish would remain open in closed recreation areas. However, no camping would be permitted because there would be no toilets, no tables and no garbage collection.
The man most likely to have to explain to an angry public why parks are closed is Jim Stratton, director of the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation.
"I love my job. I love my job a lot," he said Tuesday. "But I hate this part."
Stratton, who has headed Parks since 1995, said this is the third time in seven years he's had to create a list of possible closures in response to proposed cuts. The last time, lawmakers considered a reduction on the order of $250,000. This time, they're talking more than four times that.
Mostly, it will be Alaskans who suffer, he said. Eight of every 10 visitors to a state recreation area is a resident. While tourists from Outside typically head for the national parks, such as Denali, Kenai Fjords or Glacier Bay, Alaskans head for state recreation areas, such as Deep Creek, the Anchor River and Nancy Lakes.
No fan of closures, Stratton said shutting the gates to state recreation areas is going to hurt the tourist economy. The $1 million reduction proposed by the House would come directly from a line item designated Parks Management, leaving just $957,000 for that function next fiscal year. By comparison, the current 2002 operating budget spends almost $1.95 million.
No reductions were proposed for other Parks line items, the State Historical Preservation Program and Parks and Recreation Access.
The Department of Natural Resources, of which the Division of Parks is a part, is supporting an idea proposed by Rep. Bill Hudson, R-Juneau, that calls for using "program receipts," money derived from user fees, to fund parks management. Hudson is a member of the House Finance Subcommittee on the Department of Natural Resources.
While the Alaska Constitution generally doesn't permit designating funds, there is a state statute under which some program receipts can be funneled directly back to the program in which they are collected, completely bypassing the general fund altogether.
On the state's books, that actually amounts to a reduction in state general fund spending, according to House members. Transferring program receipts directly to park operations would negate the need for the $1 million cut, Stratton said.
Rep. Hudson said Wednesday that he is hoping some park money is returned to the budget eventually.
"I think there is some interest on the part of the Senate side to restructure the cuts and add some money back in," he said.
Campers clean clams in the campground at Clam Gulch State Recreation Area. The popular spot is one of several campgrounds on the Kenai Peninsula that may be closed this summer because of budget woes.
Clarion File Photo
He's also banking on there being support for the idea of using program receipts by the time the budget is ready for a final vote, but he said he doesn't know if that support is there.
"It's a hope," he said.
House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage, said he finds it hard to understand the cuts to parks when the state is trying to encourage tourism.
"What kind of Alaska do you want?" he said. "What are we presenting with this budget?"
He said using program receipts would fix the immediate problem for the parks management budget, but it would "open a hole" in the budget somewhere else. What's needed, he said, is a long-range plan.
"To divorce the budget from a long-range plan is irresponsible," he said. "It's like trying to figure out what house you're going to buy without knowing what job you have."
Stratton said getting the $1 million back also could mean ensuring more federal matching money. If he had those funds, he would spend it to accomplish at least some of the more than $42 million deferred maintenance backlog, he said.
Among the duties performed under the parks management budget are maintenance, managing park uses, improving park and roadside facilities, training, and running the park user-fee program.
In 2001, about 1.4 million "recreational visits" were recorded at the state's 121 facilities, including 250,000 here on the Kenai Peninsula.
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