The Chugach National Forest and Alaska State Parks are still open for recreation, but in the time of the threat of the new coronavirus, using public lands responsibly has become even more important.
“Alaskans love to get outdoors and recreate,” said Alicia King, public affairs and partnership staff officer for Chugach National Forest, which includes the Seward Ranger District on the eastern side of the Kenai Peninsula. “Having public lands like the Chugach National Forest to recreate in provides solitude that is so needed. We just ask that people be responsible.”
The Seward Ranger District is responsible for many of the trails, campgrounds and cabins in the area between Seward, Cooper Landing and Hope. King said trails and cabins are still open in the Seward Ranger District. Campgrounds normally don’t start opening until the week before Memorial Day.
April 7, the Forest Service issued an order for the Alaska region saying that entering or staying in the forest with a group of more than 10 is prohibited.
King said Chugach National Forest also encourages visitors to stay home if they are feeling sick or experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, and to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance for personal hygiene and social distancing.
In addition, Chugach National Forest wants visitors to take out all of their trash and use the restroom at home instead of at a forest facility. King said it’s better for the health and safety of forest employees and the public if the restrooms get minimal to no use. Thus far, no restrooms in the Seward Ranger District have been officially closed.
Cabins in the district remain open, but King said they are not being cleaned between uses. King said users should follow CDC guidelines for cleaning surfaces in the cabin before and after use.
All trails remain open. King asked for the public’s help in keeping it that way. If a trailhead is crowded, King suggested using another trail. She also recommended avoiding popular trails, like Resurrection Pass, during popular times.
“We want recreation opportunities to be available to people and to remain available,” King said. “We are continuing to assess if we need to temporarily suspend access to recreation areas that may attract large crowds.”
King said all trails are open in the Seward Ranger District following the Swan Lake Fire last summer. Areas within the ranger district that were burned still have trees weakened by fire and ash pits that can cause severe burns.
In burn areas, Chugach National Forest is recommending avoiding windy days, using the buddy system, leaving trip plans with friends, keeping children close, keeping dogs on a leash, using sturdy footwear and using walking sticks to test for ash pits.
King did say the Chugach National Forest Service relies on volunteers, but this early in the season, it was too early to say how COVID-19 would affect volunteers and the forest.
At Alaska State Parks, Wendy Sailors, development specialist, said operations should be as normal as possible.
“Right now, our intention is to open parks as we normally do,” Sailors said. “Some areas are already open, and we keep that updated as much as possible. This is the time, as the snow starts to melt, we start opening parks.”
State Parks has campgrounds, trails and cabins in communities throughout the peninsula in the form of state recreation areas and state recreation sites, as well as Kachemak Bay State Park.
Even though out-of-state tourism is expected to be down this summer, Sailors said the peninsula’s state sites should still get use when Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s mandate limiting travel between communities is lifted.
“The peninsula will see a lot more Alaska traffic,” Sailors said. “A lot of Alaskans, instead of traveling out of state, will travel in the state more, especially in early to mid summer.”
This weekend, the United States and Canada agreed to keep their border closed to nonessential travel for another 30 days. For State Parks, this means a pool of volunteers to serve as campground hosts is suddenly drained.
“We’re not able to get people who would normally come up because they can’t go through Canada,” Sailors said.
This week, Sailors said State Parks will begin to search for in-state hosts.
“There’s probably going to be a lot of unfilled positions,” she said. “That doesn’t mean we won’t have campgrounds open, but it might look a little different.”
A second challenge State Parks is facing is getting approval to hire AmeriCorps conservation crew members. Sailors said these seasonal workers are paid a small salary.
“These people really keep the parks going — cleaning the bathrooms and picking up trash,” Sailors said. “They do a lot of things that leave rangers to do more ranger-type stuff. If we don’t have them, the rangers end up doing that.”
Working on trails will be another challenge. Sailors shared an email from Eric Clarke, a park specialist in trails with Kachemak Bay State Park.
Clarke wrote he is hoping to have a four-person AmeriCorps conservation crew begin training by June 1 and be in the field doing trail work by the middle of June. This crew would work on opening some trails in the park that have previously not been a high priority.
“If field camps are not allowed for the summer and/or are restricted on the number of people we can transport by boat, we plan on a reduced work force and doing day trips only,” Clarke wrote. “Which will reduce the amount of mileage we will open.”
Clarke also wrote that volunteers play a key role in maintaining trails. He plans on doing Saturday volunteer work parties in the summer once mandates are lifted. He also wrote June 6 is Trails Day, sponsored by Friends of Kachemak Bay. Clarke hopes mandates are lifted by then so there can be a safe event.
“As of right now, we’re planning as if we will be able to do what we were able to do last year,” Sailors said. “We’ll cancel as we need to cancel.”