With Federal Funding Drying Up, Fate of Trails Program Uncertain

Whether it’s with bicycles, ATVs, or hiking boots, this holiday week is a prime time for Alaskans to go and play outside. There are hundreds of miles of trails available for use across the state, and much of that system is developed and maintained with federal funding. But now, some of that money is at risk of drying up, and outdoor enthusiasts are worried about what that could mean for recreation in the state. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.

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It’s a clear Fairbanks day, and Geoffrey Orth is taking his golden retriever out for a little bit of exercise at Ester Dome.

“We typically do at least a couple three-mile or four-mile runs every week. And if she’s in shape, we’ll to a 12-mile bike or a 20-mile bike.”

One of their favorite places to go is the Happy Valley trail, a narrow mountain biking course that rides like a roller coaster. The trail cuts through a sloping forest, and it’s intricate and winding. Orth shows me just how complex it is when we stop by a map.

“There’s an outer loop, which is the orange, going around, and that’s about six and a half miles. There’s an inner loop, which is the yellow moving around. That’s about three and a half. And then we have this tight-and-twisty, that triangle or diamond shape there.”

The whole thing was built a couple of years ago to the tune of $200,000. Much of that money came from a federal grant distributed by the Recreational Trails Program, or RTP, which sends a million dollars to Alaska annually.

As president of the recreation nonprofit Alaska Trails, Orth is a huge fan of RTP. So, he got a little bit nervous when he learned that the program could go away next year.

“There’s no way to build sustainable trails without these RTP funds. They’re critical.”

The reason why RTP is in danger of disappearing is a little bit complicated. The program is paid for with federal highway money, and there are strings attached: Only a $100,000 of the funding can be spent on program administration, which cost $300,000.

Up until now, the remaining operating costs were covered by the Alaska Trails Initiative, a separate Alaska-only trails program created by the late Sen. Ted Stevens. With Congress going through a belt-tightening phase, that second program is scheduled to sunset this fall. So, there’s a domino effect, with RTP potentially being victim of a smaller program getting cut.

To stop this from happening, trails advocates like Orth say the State of Alaska needs to step in and cover RTP’s operating costs. His group, Alaska Trails, teamed up with snowmachine clubs, trail organizations, and officials from the Fairbanks North Star Borough, the Mat-Su Borough, and Skagway to call upon the governor to make up the shortfall.

Ben Ellis directs the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation. He says the state is looking into it, and acknowledges that the funding situation is uncertain.

“How we move forward is up in the air, and we’ll be discussing that as we start working on budget issues coming up this summer.”

Since the budget for this fiscal year has already gone into effect, the state’s somewhat limited in what it can do until the legislature meets again. But Ellis says they still might have a few options. They could maybe roll funding for RTP into a supplemental budget package, or they could try to reduce operating costs by awarding a few large grants instead of a lot of smaller ones. Ellis adds that he’s optimistic they’ll find a way to keep RTP running.

“We’re very supportive of it. We think it’s a fantastic program.”

RTP funding is set to expire in October. State officials are meeting later this month to discuss the program’s status.

agutierrez (at) alaskapublic (dot) org | 907.209.1799 | About Alexandra

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