Private nonprofit to assume management of Valdez-area parks

Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources saw more than half a million dollars slashed from its budget heading into this fiscal year, and some state parks suffered for it. Now, four sites near Valdez are set to join a growing list of Alaska parks under private management.

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When it faced down the cuts, state parks system had to make some tough choices: Spread the pain around, or quit funding a couple specific areas?

Officials chose the latter, and parks in Sitka and Valdez drew short straws. Sites there were put into “passive management,” which means outhouses were boarded up and staff laid off. DNR spokeswoman Claire LeClair said it was unavoidable.

“We couldn’t absorb the level of cuts we had in FY16 without reducing the level of services somewhere,” LeClair said.

In Sitka, some of those services were restored when the National Parks System stepped up to take over management of sites. But the solution for Valdez was to look for private outside management. Enter Levitation 49, a new nonprofit sports commission. Co-founder Lee Hart said the group is finalizing an agreement with the state to take over management of the Blueberry Lake campground, cabin sites and recreation areas near the Prince William Sound port town. Hart said it fits with the group’s mission to make Valdez a year-round outdoor recreation hub, and she said people there are enthusiastic about having a local group assume control.

“Our community values these assets, and they are cheering for us to take them over and do the same or better job of maintaining them,” Hart said.

LeClair said she can’t confirm details of the arrangement yet. But she said the private management of public parks in Alaska is nothing new. Two dozen parks around the state are currently run by outside groups or for-profit companies.

“We don’t just write on a napkin, ‘Here’s your agreement,’” she said. “We have conditions and stipulations. So far they’ve worked very well.”

Those stipulations include a requirement that private groups must keep fees comparable to other state-run parks.

Hart said her group hopes its management in Valdez will serve as a model for keeping public lands open in a time of shrinking budgets.

“This is a statewide issue,” Hart said. “What’s happening here is happening in some other communities and it’s probably in the foreseeable future not going to get much better. We have to look at this from a statewide perspective and figure out how much do the residents of this state value public lands, are there mechanisms to better support them financially, and what are those and how do we make it happen?”

Levitation 49 has other public-private partnerships in the works. Hart said the group has a grant from the National Parks Service to plan trails along the Richardson Highway, and is a partner on the Trans-Alaska trail project.