State seeks contractors to operate 5 Delta-area parks semi-closed due to budget cuts

State Parks and Outdoor Recreation Division officials last week cut back amenities at five Delta-area parks due to another round of budget cuts. (Alaska Department of Natural Resources)

The state Parks and Outdoor Recreation Division is turning to the private sector to manage five Delta Junction-area state parks that were partially closed last week due to cuts in the agency’s budget. The division has begun soliciting proposals from prospective contractors to operate the parks.

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Nancy Schooley Williams is a retired Delta schoolteacher who enjoys getting out in the summer and camping in the area’s six state parks. So she was very disappointed last weekend when she went to her favorite park, the Clearwater State Recreation Site.

“The bathroom doors are locked. And, for some reason, the handle was taken off the water pump, so people can’t even get water,” Williams said Wednesday.

Williams was among the many other unhappy campers, and anglers and picnickers who’d gone to the Clearwater or other Delta-area campgrounds over the long July 4th weekend only to discover they’d been placed under so-called “passive management.” Meaning, they’re sort of semi-closed – accessible, but without any of the usual amenities.

“It was just the most friendly and welcoming campground that I’d ever seen,” Williams said. “And the thought of it being closed up is just very, very distressing.”

Williams said she talks with a lot tourists as part of her volunteer job at the Sullivan House, an old roadhouse in Delta that’s been preserved and that now serves as a museum of area history. She said the parks cutbacks are going to hurt Delta’s tourism economy.

“I’m always recommending certain campgrounds, y’know, that are good,” Williams said. And now it’s really hard to recommend any campground that doesn’t have a toilet.”

State Parks Superintendent Brooks Ludwig said the agency closed the six Delta-area parks at the end of last week to accommodate funding cuts included in the Legislature’s overall state operating budget that was nearly $146 million less than last year’s.

“We had to wait until the very end of the budget cycle to see whether the money was put in,” Ludwig said Wednesday. “And unfortunately, it wasn’t.”

Ludwig said the budget cuts forced State Parks to shut down the agency’s office in Delta and lay off the seasonal worker who took care of the area’s parks. That was among 10 positions in Delta, Fairbanks and Harding Lake that were cut this fiscal year.

“These are the folks that do all the painting of the park fixtures, the cleaning of the toilets, the mowing of the lawns,” Ludwig said.

Quartz Lake State Recreation Area, along with the Clearwater facility, generate the most revenue of all Delta-area parks. State officials have “bundled” them with two other area parks in an effort to enable a contractor to to make a profit by keeping them open and maintained. (Karla Brown/Flickr)

Ludwig said in response, State Parks will try to contract-out management of five Delta-area parks, including a separate contract for the Big Delta State Historical Park, and leave Fielding Lake State Recreation Area near Isabel Pass in passive management. He says the agency had to resort to contracting two years ago when budget cuts forced reductions at parks around Sitka. And again last year, when it cut funding for Valdez-area parks.

“It’s just unfortunate – we can’t afford to run them,” Ludwig said.

Ludwig said the contractors must maintain the facilities and keep them safe. He said they’ll have to pay State Parks a flat fee up front, and in exchange they’ll get to keep all the fees it’ll charge parks users. He said that’ll likely to increase the cost for those users, who may for example see the price of renting a space in a campground go up from $15 to $20 a night.

“We’ve got some interest out there,” Ludwig said. “I’ve been contacted by at least five or six people (who) are interested in potentially putting in a proposal.”

Ludwig said the Delta-area parks generate an average of $80,000 a year, most of which comes from its Clearwater and Quartz Lake facilities. He said proposals must be submitted by July 21st, and that State Parks hopes to award a contract by mid-August.