Parks superintendent is 'unshakable'

Posted: Friday, June 10, 2005

FAIRBANKS — Whether it's presiding over an angry mob of riverboaters, harnessing the wrath of mad mushers or juggling the demands of raising twins, Anna Plager somehow always manages to keep her cool, most of the time with a smile on her face.

''She doesn't let people rattle her,'' said Brooks Ludwig, head park ranger for the northern region of Alaska State Parks.

In the 20-plus years Ludwig has worked with Plager, he has seen her in action plenty of times. Whether it's dealing with boaters upset about potential restrictions on the Chena River or mushers frothing about a trail-clearing project in the Chena River State Recreation Area, Plager has a way of defusing the moment and turning it into a conversation instead of a confrontation.

''She has such a calming affect,'' said Ludwig, who, as a father of twins himself, often seeks Plager's guidance. ''The woman is unshakable.''

It's a virtue that has served Plager well, as the northern area land planning chief for the Department of Natural Resources, for the last nine years as the northern area superintendent for Alaska State Parks and as mother of 15-year-old twins, Ben and Amy.

All three jobs have forced her to balance the needs and wants of everyone involved.

''She does a really good job of dealing with some dicey issues,'' said Tom Paraguay, who sits on the state parks Citizen Advisory Board in Fairbanks. ''She's really good at keeping complex, controversial issues in perspective.''

Her disarming demeanor comes from years of dealing with land-use issues all over northern Alaska. As land planning chief for DNR for 12 years, Plager was responsible for putting together a 10-million acre land plan for northwest Alaska and a 14-million acre plan for the Tanana Basin. Both plans required countless public meetings, many of which were contentious.

These days, Plager is busy contending with a shrinking state parks budget and growing demand for campgrounds, hiking trails, ATV trails, toilets and picnic tables.

''Planning is a thankless job,'' said Plager. ''If everyone is mad at you, you're doing a good job. I think I've learned not to take things too seriously. I realize what people are mad at this year will be something different next year.

''People really care about their public lands. That you do have to take seriously.''

When she graduated from high school at age 16, Plager had her life all mapped out.

For a while, everything went according to plan. Plager graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1974 and got her master's from the University of Washington in 1982. In between, she managed to finagle her way to Alaska and even spent a couple years living in the Bush, which was one of her original goals.

''When I was in high school in Madison, my friends and I used to talk about homesteading in Alaska,'' recalled Plager. ''That's when I got the Alaska bug.''

She came to the Last Frontier in 1977. She spent summers doing research at Mount McKinley National Park and Preserve and spent two winters in the late 1970s living in a cabin 50 miles up the Ambler River with her boyfriend at the time.

''We did all the trapping, hunting, skin-sewing stuff,'' said Plager. ''We made our own clothes. We didn't have a snowmachine and just used (sled) dogs. We caught fish each fall and hauled all the food for the dogs.''

Plager returned to civilization and embarked on a career as a land planner for state parks. She served as work coordinator for the Youth Conservation Corps in 1981-82. In 1983, she became the planner for the Haines area and land planning chief for DNR in Fairbanks in 1984.

Everything was going according to plan for Plager until she hit 40.

At that point, she had found the man of her dreams — husband Chris Nye, a volcanologist with the Alaska Volcano Observatory. She had had her two kids — ''I only wanted two kids, though I didn't necessarily want them at the same time,'' quipped Plager. And she had the job that she had gone to school for.

''In 1995, I was supposed to leave Alaska and move back East and go into private consulting in Washington, D.C., or Boston,'' said Plager, unfolding her life map. ''I was going to take the kids back to see the other side of the world, to show them where the power center is.''

That's where Plager took a detour.

''I couldn't do it,'' she said. ''Fairbanks is too nice a place.''

But what about her plan to retire on a ranch in western Montana, where she could sit on the porch and watch chickens clucking around the yard and deer galloping through the fields?

''I don't know if I'll ever leave Fairbanks,'' Plager confessed. ''I love the fact that it's a small town. People are important to each other.

''You leave your family in the Lower 48, and people here are your family,'' she said.

To get an idea of what Plager and other state parks superintendents are up against in Alaska, consider that Denali National Park and Preserve, the crown jewel for the National Park Service, has practically the same number of year-round employees that state parks have to manage all 120 parks in Alaska.

''They've got federal tax dollars, and we have volunteers,'' said Plager, who uses an army of volunteers to help manage the 16 park units in the northern region.

As a result of decreased funding, state parks has been forced to impose user fees for things such as day parking and turn some popular campgrounds over to private contractors because it's cheaper than the state managing them.

Funding is a major issue for state parks. There's only so much you can do with volunteers and duct tape, Plager said.

''We've been limping along with so little money for so long we've got a deferred maintenance monster,'' said Plager. ''We manage 175 toilets in the northern area and more than half of them are over 30 years old.''

Her philosophy as a park superintendent is simple: ''There should be something there for everyone.''

The Chena River State Recreation Area east of Fairbanks is a prime example, said Plager. The 250,000-acre recreation area caters to myriad users.

''That's the challenge as a land manager,'' she said. ''How do you keep it that way when you can drive right to it?''

This year, Plager set up a survey to find out who is using the park and what they are doing. It's basic but crucial information that has never been gathered and will guide management of the park for years to come.

''In another 20 years, it won't be like that,'' Plager said of the popular recreation area. ''That's why we want to figure out now why people like it, so we can keep it that way.''

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