Visitor Products Cluster Working Group Action Initiatives

Cluster Co-Chairs: Dan Kirkwood, Pack Creek Bear Tours; Sierra Gadaire, Gastineau Guiding


  • An Open Letter to Congress and Forest Service Leadership about the Tongass National Forest Recreation Program from tourism businesses and industry supporters is currently accepting signatures.
  • Since facilitation of a Cluster Working Group began in 2012, the Visitor Products Cluster Working Group has achieved greater trust and understanding between Forest Service staff and regional outfitter/guides.
  • An initiative to increase guided access to Forest Service land resulted in temporary additional commercial use service days, which led to permanent increased access for outfitter/guides at the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area.
  • Outreach with a collective voice to policy makers and Forest Service leadership brought back at least $1 million in previously cut recreation appropriation funds to USFS Region 10 and returned more recreation dollars to USFS Region 10 in the Interior Appropriations Committee 2016 funding bill.
  • An initiative to strengthen accountability for Tongass Recreation fees led to a Region 10 decision to return fees to districts through a defined allocation rather than through a fee board, accomplishing the goal of fee transparency and accountability.

A review of Visitor Products Cluster Working Group initiatives is found below.

Visitor Industry Outreach and Engagement

The initiative will improve awareness and understanding among the public—including local, state, and federal officials—of the visitor and recreation industry’s positive impact in local communities, its diverse assets, and the importance of the industry within the regional economy. This initiative will also foster and facilitate a regional network representing the wide array of businesses and individuals within the visitor and recreation industry in order to share public policy and issue information and to communicate with a collective industry voice with policy makers on matters which affect the industry as a whole.

  • At the launch of the initiative in 2014, the initiative team focused on facilitating communication with policy makers about the impacts of the decline in federal investment on the tourism/recreation industry. Specific actions conducted under the outreach/engagement initiative included: 
    • Developing and advancing an “open letter” to Congress signed by 50 tourism/recreation businesses and economic organizations which highlights the challenges the industry faces due to declining budgets and emphasizes the importance of the appropriations to the industry. The open letter from tour businesses and supporters was submitted to the Congressional Delegation.
    • Working with the Alaska Travel Industry Association (ATIA) on the development and adoption of resolutions in support of reauthorizing the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act and of reversing the decline in Tongass funding for recreation programs, facilities, and trails. ATIA also collaborated with the Initiative Champion on an Opinion Editorial about the funding decline issue which was published in the Juneau Empire.
    • A team of cluster members met with USDA Under Secretary Robert Bonnie to present the concerns of industry about impacts due to Forest Service budget cuts. Input from the initiative Champion and JEDC also resulted in the Alaska State Chamber of Commerce adopting a policy position supporting Reauthorization of the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act.
    • To further regional networking, a teleconference was organized among remote operators representing small cruise companies, air operators, small charter boats, and hunting guides to discuss common issues and challenges. Concerns included recreation budget cut impacts on special use permitting, capacity challenges, infrastructure deterioration, fragmented Forest Service management and communication in the region, and the need for better private to private, boat to boat dialogue on impacts.
  • In 2015, Armelle Solelhac  of the French Mountain Cluster was invited to Juneau as featured speaker at that year’s Innovation Summit to share how the Mountain Cluster has had a positive impact on the French region of the Alps with regards to marketing and tourism.
  • Testimony was submitted to the Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations requesting the decline in Forest Service recreation funding be reversed, expressing support for the proposed national priority project funding for the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, and requesting reauthorization of FLREA. Outreach to state legislators resulted in six letters sent to the members of the U.S. Senate and House Appropriations Committee requesting them to increase funding for Tongass National Forest recreation program services. Personalized copies of the open letter with over 50 signatures were sent to the Alaska Congressional delegation and members of the U.S. Senate and House Appropriations Committees. The letter was shared with then Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, new TNF Supervisor Earl Stewart, and key USDA officials.
  • For the first time, Alaska's Congressional delegation was made aware of the concerns of Southeast Alaska tourism operators in a unified manner. The success of this was the in inclusion of more recreation dollars to USFS Region 10 in the Interior Appropriations Committee 2016 funding bill. Also due to the combined strength of our advocacy and Senator Murkowski’s leadership, the Senate Appropriations Committee passed out of Committee an Interior Appropriations bill which included the following non-binding guidance: The Committee urges the Forest Service to prioritize funding for recreation, trails and facilities in the Tongass National Forest and to bring investments in Region 10 more in-line with funding nationwide. Successful outreach to Under Secretary Robert Bonnie, Secretary Tom Vilsack and others resulted in a formula fix that brought back at least $1 million in cut recreation appropriation funds to the USFS Region 10.
  • In 2016, Visitor industry members met with Earl Stewart, the new Forest Supervisor, at open houses organized by the Forest Service in several communities. Cluster members also met privately with Mr. Stewart and members of his staff at JEDC offices. A letter was submitted on the Proposed Tongass Land Management Plan DEIS in support of prioritizing management of the Tongass for tourism. This letter was shared with Alaska's Congressional delegation. A letter was sent to the Forest Service in support of the proposed Special Uses Modernization Program, also shared with the Congressional delegation. A letter was then sent to Senator Murkowski to thank her for introducing legislation to fix wildfire funding that currently depletes funding from recreation programs. In response to these comments, along with others, Senator Murkowski introduced additional recreation funding in her Interior Appropriation’s bill (S3068) to address USFS permitting issues in Region 10, directing the Forest Service to “increase the pace and scale of evaluation of special-use permits, particularly in Region 10…” A Thank You letter was sent from the Chair of the Visitor Products Cluster Working Group and JEDC.
  • The City and Borough of Sitka passed a resolution regarding the importance of Recreation and Tourism activities in the Tongass National Forest. The letter from the Visitor Products Cluster that demonstrated support for recreation was a factor in the Sitka Assembly decision. JEDC and cluster members participated in a 2.5-hour breakfast meeting with a delegation from Norway here in Juneau (and Skagway and Glacier Bay) to learn about tourism management and working with the cruise industry. JEDC and members also participated in a meeting to present regional concerns to Senator Murkowski when she made a campaign stop in Juneau.
  • Also during 2016 small cruise industry businesses continued to meet to discuss common issues and shared concerns. This discussion led to drafting a follow up open letter from the industry to elected representatives and Forest Service leadership which proposes specific solutions for issues with current management practices and budget shortfalls in the Tongass National Forest. This letter will be submitted to Alaska's Congressional Delegation and Forest Service leadership in early 2017.

Develop Land and Water Trails and Support Facilities

The goal of this initiative was to develop and maintain a safe, accessible and diverse land and water trail system that allows for optimum outdoor recreational use of the region by residents and visitors, promotes increased visitation to local communities, and provides opportunities for entrepreneurs to cooperate in developing regional commercial trail packages, while protecting the region’s natural and cultural resources.

  • In 2012, the initiative team held a regional trails teleconference with participation from the business community, the US Forest Service, the National Park Service, Sitka and Juneau non-profit environmental and trail building organizations, the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park, the State of Alaska Division of Community and Economic Development, and regional economic development organizations. This teleconference was the first sharing of information between trail groups in the region. The initiative team next convened a group of industry entrepreneurs to get input on challenges to commercial trail development and use and to generate ideas for land and water trail- based commercial products and packages. Infrastructure needs, regulation issues and marketing needs were identified.
  • In 2013, the team held a question and answer session with the Juneau Ranger District to discuss hut-to-hut options on the Juneau trail system, trail access to the ice field and trail improvements for commercial activity.
  • In 2014, the initiative focused on creating a model for developing a trail as an economic driver. The team made contact with the NPS Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program to learn about trail development help available from this group. With this information, the team determined that two different models for trail development were needed. Trails in a high capacity area such as the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area (MGRA) can be supported by fees, but trails in low capacity areas of the Tongass with limited visitation need a different sustainability model.
  • As a solution to the need for a new trail funding model for remote trails, and consequent to reductions in Forest Service recreation funding which has led to cuts in trail maintenance and development and the loss of use of some trails, in 2015, this initiative was redirected to address the sustainability of remote trails and infrastructure. The initiative was renamed and refocused to establishing a permanent foundation or trust fund for receiving private donations to be used for sustaining regional land and water trails, cabins and support facilities in Southeast Alaska.

Sustained Funding for Land and Water Trails and Support Facilities

This initiative resulted from work done by the Develop Land and Water Trails and Support Facilities initiative team. The goal of this initiative is to establish a permanent foundation dedicated to providing sustained funding for land and water trails and support facilities in Southeast Alaska.

  • In 2015, the initiative team explored alternative vehicles for establishing a dedicated fund for the planning, development and maintenance of trails and cabins in the Tongass. After exploratory meetings with the Executive Director, the Juneau Community Foundation (JCF) was selected to house a donor advised endowment fund. Next steps will be to establish an advisory board, create a fundraising plan that includes who to target for funds, a target fund size and a timeline to reach target, and to submit the JCF application. However, in late 2015, attention focused on this issue led to a partnership between the District 10 Forest Service and the National Forest Foundation (NFF) to create an Alaska Forest Fund. This partnership will conduct forest health projects and recreational enhancement projects on the Tongass and Chugach National Forests with the help of local partners. The fund received a commitment of $100,000 from NFF to match private donations given for recreation, restoration and conservation projects.
  • In 2016, the Alaska Forest Fund raised $160,000 through corporate and private donations for three projects, exceeding its goal of raising $100,000 in matching funds. The Forest Service has committed $100,000 again for next year. With the NFF partnership moving forward, the Sustainable Trails initiative team has made the decision to slow down creation of the endowment fund in deference to NFF fund raising, so as not to go after the same money. Instead, support will be provided to the NFF fund raising effort.

Increase Guided Access to Land

Agency permitting processes are limiting economic opportunity in the tourism industry in the Tongass National Forest and other public lands. Demand exceeds permitted access levels. This initiative addresses the lack of permitting flexibility to make quick changes in response to market conditions.

  • This initiative was launched in 2012 and successfully led to the allocation of 15,400 additional temporary commercial use service days at the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area (MGRA) for the summer of 2012. Although the additional time was off peak, the increase worked well for commercial operators. Another initial outcome of this initiative was the identification of a timing discrepancy between USFS allocation decisions and private industry commitments to the cruise ship season, which was reviewed and addressed going forward.
  • In 2013, the Forest Service renewed the 15,400 additional temporary use day pilot program begun in 2012 and made it less restrictive. The operators could use the service days without restriction to off peak times. The Forest Service made the decision in February to offer these additional use days, and operators requested that the decision be made in the fall so that the timing better matched the industry needs. As a result, the USFS renewed the 15,400 additional temporary use days for the summer of 2014 in November of this year. New operators were included.
  • In 2014, the group followed the progress of the update to the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area Commercial Use Plan in order to formalize an increase in commercial use allocations. The cluster process has made the Forest Service aware of the need to design flexibility into capacity allocations in the new plan that can accommodate future infrastructure changes. The strategy in the plan is to acknowledge that the area is congested and visitor volume cannot increase without structural changes. Some increase in visitor volume could occur on the lake surface and on trails around the facilities. The idea of putting visitor volume onto the lake surface because of capacity constraints on land is a success of the cluster process.
  • In 2015, the Forest Service again made 15,400 additional temporary commercial use days available. With the completion of the MGRA Commercial Use Plan in 2016, a new prospectus was issued which incorporated the 15,400 service days. In total, this initiative resulted in additional revenue of about $5.3 million to Outfitter/Guides, $264,000 tax revenue to the City and Borough of Juneau, and $236,000 additional fee revenue to the MGRA. Also, in response to the cluster’s request for a more frequent prospectus, the MGRA made a decision to issue a new prospectus every five years.
  • In 2016, the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area received planning funds from the Federal Highway Administration for a two-year project to prepare a Conceptual Development Plan for the expansion and improvements to its facilities and roadways. Going forwards, this initiative will follow the development of the MGRA planning effort for input to the process where possible. As a direct result of this initiative, the visitor Industry and the MGRA management opened lines of communication, resulting in a working relationship with better understanding of industry needs and Forest Service processes.

Strengthen Accountability for Tongass Recreation Fees

This initiative addressed the development of a mechanism for more private sector input to decide where recreation fees are allocated. The industry worked with the Forest Service to establish more affordable access, local control of fee structure and more accountability.

  • As a direct success of the launch of this initiative in 2012, the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area received reinstated funding of $57,000 and additional trail maintenance funding of $79,000 from District 10 leadership. In November, for the first time, outfitter/guides and tourism companies were invited to attend the Tongass Fee Board meeting in an organized fashion. A recommendation came down from the Fee Board to shift the fee allocation formula to put more money into enhancement and less into planning and administration.
  • In 2013, in response to this initiative, the Forest Service created a new regional recreation fee information web page. Also, a change was made as to how enhancement funds from Outfitter/Guide fees are distributed back to the districts. For the first time, the Fee Board distributed half of the enhancement funds ($350,000) using a non-competitive formula. Outfitter/guides were invited again to attend the fee board meeting. A change was made to when the fee board looks at projects in 2014: in March/April instead of October. The team began to follow the status of the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA)and sent a letter to Alaska’s Congressional delegation to request support for reauthorization of the FLREA. The act has since been extended to 2017.
  • In 2014, the Fee Board again distributed half of the enhancement funds ($350,000) using a non-competitive formula. Outfitter/guides were invited again to attend the fee board meeting. Discussions were held with Forest Service leadership concerning the recreation budget allocation, both fee and non-fee, and how the outfitter/guides could strengthen their involvement in the fee board process throughout the year and give feedback on projects coming up.
  • In 2015, the Juneau Ranger District found a policy solution that resulted in an industry acceptable fee increase for the MGVC. The fee allocation formula was shifted again to put more money into enhancement and less into planning and administration. Subsequently, Forest Service leadership decided to return Outfitter and Guide fees to districts through a defined allocation rather than through a fee board. This is seen as a successful resolution for this initiative, accomplishing the goal of fee transparency and accountability.

Integrate Tourism Courses with University of Alaska Southeast Existing Degree Programs

This initiative explored the creation of a tourism management program at the University of Alaska Southeast (UAS). The initiative had the dual goal to create more employment and educational opportunities for Alaskans and to provide an opportunity for UAS to attract and retain quality four year students. 

  • In 2012 the initiative team and University of Alaska Southeast opened discussions to develop tourism management coursework. As an indirect result, the School of Arts and Sciences created a new four-year Bachelor of Liberal Arts degree with an emphasis in Outdoor Studies. The initiative team began to work with the Dean of the School of Management toward adding a two-year Tourism Emphasis area to the Associate of Applied Science degree program. UAS and the team developed a survey to determine level of interest among visitor industry summer employees. This initial survey was distributed to summer employees in August 2012. Based on the results, the survey was then revised to be distributed to job applicants in the winter of 2013. In addition, discussions were begun to change the semester start date to early October to accommodate the summer tourism work season. As an indirect outcome of this initiative, UAS and the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center jointly developed an Environmental Interpretation class.
  • In 2013, the University of Alaska Southeast, JEDC and the initiative team finalized an on-line survey to gauge the interest among seasonal summer employees in tourism for enrolling in a 2 year associates degree program with an emphasis in tourism. Eleven local firms participated in distributing the survey by linking it to their recruitment pages. 172 responses were received and showed overall positive results. As an outcome of the survey, the UAS business program refocused its student recruitment efforts to target tourism and seafood, with a successful enrollment of 42 students, a big uptick from prior years.
  • Based on the encouraging results of the survey conducted in 2013, in the spring two core business courses were added to the 2014 fall UAS schedule, Introduction to Business and Computer Literacy. Both classes were scheduled to start on October 1st and end in early December, and both were available online. Over the summer, tourism businesses promoted the seasonal courses to employees through presentations, print collateral distributed in break rooms, and an industry/UAS recruitment reception held for summer employees. Despite the summer recruitment effort, no new students enrolled for the two classes. Team members felt that because the courses were promoted over the summer, the effort was too late to reach students prior to making fall commitments. They requested that the courses be offered one more time, with the launch of marketing in the winter rather than the summer. However, a new Dean at the UAS School of Management declined, deciding this program was not a fit with their focus on programs delivered to adults with full time jobs. No further action is planned for this initiative.