Trail crews in Anchorage are in the final push to wrap up a project on popular trail in the Chugach State Park before winter hits, but advocates of the CARES-funded project say it’s about a lot more than that.
Anchorage Assemblymember Chris Constant says it’s really about one thing: jobs.
“What’s actually going on here is we’re investing in people who want to earn a living, training them, providing them with linkage to future job opportunities where they have fundamentally basic training to get into the workforce,” he said.
The idea is based on the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Projects Administration, two programs to put Americans to work during the Great Depression. This time it’s funded locally with $4.5 million for a public land jobs program that was carved out of the over $156 million that Anchorage got from the CARES Act.
Constant said that a lot of the federal money went to programs like rental and mortgage relief and small business grants through state and federal programs. The Payroll Protection Program alone has doled out over $1.2 billion to small businesses in Alaska. But Constant says many young workers were left out.
“What became clear was that some people weren’t going to fit any of those projects. They weren’t small business, they didn’t have the need for a mortgage or rent assistance. They don’t have childcare needs, and so they’re left high and dry,” said Constant.
Trail worker Seana Carrigan fit into that category. She’s been working on trails around the country for five years, and says she’s not sure what she’d be doing without the work this year.
“Typically I’d go look somewhere else for a job but I’m Alaska so isolated from everywhere else with COVID…I don’t know what I would have done,” she said, standing in the trail to block hikers as an A-Star helicopter dropped sling loads of 4x4s.
Down the trail, recent college graduate Sage Romey said she was unsure what she wanted to do out of college, and the trail work has given her some much-appreciated security as she entered the workforce during a global pandemic.
“It’s really nice having a job that like I know I can do during COVID and I know we’ll we’ll be paying for you know, the next couple of months of uncertainty,” she said.
Steve Cleary, director of Alaska Trails which is coordinating the project, says the job put 11 people to work, but it also provided an important service to the environment of the state park, which has seen heavy usage during the pandemic. The trail up O’Malley Gully is heavily eroding because foot traffic has torn away vegetation.
“By making a sustainable trail, we protect the environment but also make it more fun and safe for people to hike,” he said.
A parallel project, also funded by CARES Act money will help remove beetle-kill spruce trees to provide firewood and to keep the dead trees from becoming tinder for another fire.
“It’s a beautification project and it’s a public safety project because we’re going to protect people’s homes by pulling the dead trees on our public land, abutting their private land, that might burn down their homes,” he said. .
Constant, who said the public lands funding was perhaps the project he was most proud of in allocating CARES funding, said that while the benefits are primarily to the workers, the improvement to public lands will have a lasting impact.