Anchor River, Captain Cook recreation areas facing closure

Budget ax takes aim at parks

Posted: Thursday, April 13, 2000

Tourists will have two less reasons to visit the Kenai Peninsula this summer if legislative cuts go through.

The state Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation released its list on Tuesday of parks that will be closed due to the cuts, and it includes Captain Cook State Recreation Area north of Nikiski and the Anchor River State Recreation Area-Stariski State Recreation Site.

The two state parks are slated for closure on July 1 if the Alaska House does not restore $280,000 in cuts to the Parks budget.

While the House made cuts, the Senate approved full funding for Parks. The issue is now in a joint conference committee that began deliberating the Parks budget this week.

"We've been hoping all along that things will iron themselves out," said Parks Director Jim Stratton. "We released the list in hopes that the Legislature will see the folly in closing parks."

Kathy Tarr, director of the Kenai Visitors and Convention Bureau, sees the folly.

"It's absurd, in a way," she said. "We promote Alaska, the outdoors, the wilderness and the park system, and to potentially have the situation that some of our parks are closed is terrible."

In announcing the list of closing parks, Stratton said he is worried about the "Chicken Little" effect, since he did the same thing two years ago when other Parks cuts were looming.

"With the message from the Legislature that we should prepare to take some cuts, we felt we needed to let the people know what was happening," he said.

Stratton was able to have the cuts restored in 1998.

The $280,000 cuts this year amount to 5 percent of the Parks budget, Stratton said.

"No prudent businessman can offer the same level of service with a 5 percent cut," he said.

Closing the parks means different things to different areas.

"Some we will gate, some we will just walk away from," Stratton said. "It's an unfortunate situation."

That means there will be no maintenance of the facilities, such as cleaning and pumping out toilets, painting picnic tables or maintaining the grounds.

"There will be nobody there to keep riffraff out," Stratton said. "No management at all."

At Anchor River, some camping areas most likely will be gated off, but some of the drive-through areas should remain accessible, Stratton said. Captain Cook may just be abandoned.

"I don't have the budget to put a guard at the gate," he said. "But I can walk away. And that's what I'll have to do."

Anchor River and Captain Cook were among 10 parks that will be closed around the state, including removing all Parks presence from Sitka. All but one of the parks were formed by the department, while Captain Cook was created by the Legislature.

"Captain Cook has the lowest revenue, among the lowest visitation and the highest operating costs of our parks," Stratton said.

Because of its distance from other parks, employees at Captain Cook cannot work at any other parks. Stratton said Anchor River-Stariski was chosen because it had low visitorship compared with parks in nearby Deep Creek and Ninilchik.

"Relative to the other two, it fit the criteria," he said.

Closing the two peninsula parks would represent a $51,000 per year savings. It would cost two full-time seasonal employees.

All parks slated for closing will shut their doors at the height of the tourist season, on July 1. Tarr said Captain Cook is the most recommended state park out of her office.

"Captain Cook State Park is one of those undiscovered gems on the peninsula," she said. "Closing it is taking one of our most important tourism products right off the market. We send hundreds and hundreds of tourists there in the summer. What are we going to say to them? 'Oh, there used to be a state park down the road.'"

Tarr said she will call legislators to lobby them about restoring the cut funds.

"It's no reflection on State Parks, they have to cut something," she said. "But that park is near and dear to my heart; I love Captain Cook State Park, and I know residents do too. This is bad news for residents and tourism."

Tarr pointed out that tourists must travel through Kenai and Soldotna twice to visit the park at the far end of the Kenai Spur Highway.

"If there's no park at the end of the road, tourists will just drive somewhere else," she said. "It could be a negative economic impact."

The House and Senate conference committee will continue to debate the entire state operating budget, which includes the cuts to the state park system, into next week.

"We'll know in a few days what we have to do," Stratton said.

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