Letters to the Editor

Posted: Monday, April 22, 2002

Parks director clarifies intent of position on budget cuts

I read with interest Phil Nash's recent editorial assessment of state park staff behavior and suggestions about local management of Parks and I have a few thoughts I'd like to add to the mix.

1. State Parks is not "demanding" money. The Legislature proposed cutting the Parks budget by $1 million (about 20 percent), and Parks staff is simply saying what we will not be able to provide should these cuts become a reality. If your income level dropped by 20 percent, you'd also have to do less.

2. We have tried on several occasions to get local governments or local organizations to take over parks. Twice the community of Anchor Point very decidedly told me "No way" when we suggested that someone local operate Anchor River State Recreation Area.

And we've tried to get the North Kenai Recreation Service District to operate Bernice Lake State Recreation Site and Captain Cook State Recreation Area. They were not interested.

One reason is that these park units take a commitment of government funds, in addition to user fees, to stay open. Understandably, local governments are not interested in assuming additional responsibilities, especially from the state, that would further impact already shrinking local government budgets.

3. If the Legislature had funds to provide to local government in the manner in which Mr. Nash suggests, they'd have enough money for the Division of Parks to operate these facilities, and we wouldn't be in the situation we're in now.

4. Mr. Nash's suggestion of using local volunteers is one we have been embracing for more than 15 years. Campground hosts are volunteers. We have volunteer ranger assistants and local civic groups volunteer regularly in state parks. It's not a new idea. In fact, volunteers contribute more than 25,000 hours of volunteer labor in state parks on the Kenai Peninsula each year.

It is unfortunate that the state House of Representatives has chosen to try and meet the budget gap by cutting popular state programs, like state parks. But the reality is that they did. We are not seeking a "raise in our allowance," as Mr. Nash suggests. We are simply attempting to hold the line and operate your state parks status quo. From what we've heard, it's what most Alaskans want us to do.

Jim Stratton, director

Alaska State Parks

Bad budget cuts threaten to relegate state to third-world status

It is unfortunate that the Clarion's April 14 article, "Not Everyone Unhappy To See Inspections End," on potential Department of Environmental Conservation budget cuts overly focused on a selected instance of "personal" dysfunction between a DEC official and a private food service business. Lost in the "story" is the basic fact that the relationship our food service industry has with state government is a partnership rather than an adversarial, citizen versus IRS type posture.

Licensing, state assisted training, and inspection has this partnership in jointly securing public safety at its core. As an owner/manager of a food service business in Cooper Landing, I have worked with the DEC's Brad Tufto and all his predecessors the past seven years. No one has approached his or her responsibilities with more technical expertise than Mr. Tufto. Albeit his approach is direct, it has never been unprofessional.

When Mr. Tufto commented during a 2001 inspection that more of my summer-season-only employees should attend the DEC-conducted safe food-handling course, he took as good as he gave when I very directly suggested the DEC get its act together and stop holding courses in April when our industry's staff are in off-season skeleton status versus moving them to very early June when our staff increases more than 15-fold.

This two-day dynamic ensures public safety, rather than merely allowing business practices or illogical state training program timing drive the train. Additionally, for a food service company to blanketly say that the DEC is not accountable to the food service industry sounds more like a complaint about standards and enforcement than about responsiveness to reasonable recommendations offered to improve the overall training and inspection program.

The suggestion that self or private sector inspection is a suitable path for the food service industry is a dangerous proposition, for it lacks the requisite training and objective inspection tools necessary to assure public safety. Given the inspection program is largely already paid for by licensing fees, it makes little sense to dismantle a self-sufficient program given, in its absence, the public safety dangers.

As a lodge owner, with products and services that extend beyond food service, I also fear the elimination of the DEC program will lead to incidents that will taint the entire Alaska tourism industry, thereby relegating us to a "don't drink the water" third-world-like status.

I can think of dozens of other roles that state government ought to butt out of our personal and corporate lives to save us ill-spent tax dollars. Further, the federal government already has Alaska hemmed in as a colony of the Lower 48, so why take an action that, by its total ignorance, would only reinforce that brazen perception.

I urge citizens to contact their legislative representatives to support the continuation of the DEC's food service training and inspection programs to ensure public safety and the future vitality of Alaska's tourism industry.

Robert Siter

Cooper Landing

Editor's note: The state Senate restored the food inspection program cut last week.

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