Ferries lose naturalists to budget cuts

JUNEAU — As the sun creeps into the sleeping quarters of the Tustumena, passengers who take a second to look out the window wake up to volcanic topography, sky blue lakes and wildlife that looks extraterrestrial even to most Alaskans.

That ethereal experience only lasts a few seconds; the berth’s stripped-down bunk beds and dreary wallpaper quickly remind passengers they are sailing on a ferry that is almost 50 years old.

Having a ship that’s a vestige of another era, however, does offer one small perk: During the summer, a handful of vessels have a nature expert on board who teaches passengers about the stunning scenery and animals.

Alaska’s state-owned ferries — which shuttle residents and tourists between remote towns on the coasts of Washington state, Canada and Alaska — are scaling back costs by getting rid of the naturalist program on all but one of the 11-ship fleet this year.

State officials say the program may eventually be brought back, but for now, the plan is to replace them with computerized equipment and brochures on the so-called Alaska Marine Highway System, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

In light of Alaska’s declining revenues and an unclear financial future, the state’s various departments were asked to bring expenses down by eliminating items that do not affect core functions.

Naturalists, who are hired and paid by the U.S. Forest Service or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, make about $22,000 a season. The state provides them free room and board on the ferry, which costs about $5,000 per year, per ship, according to Jeremy Woodrow, a spokesman for the Alaska Department of Transportation, the department responsible for the ferry system.

“The core purpose of the marine highway system really is providing transportation as a highway,” Woodrow said.

The Marine Highway system is an aging, bare-boned necessity. Only four of the 11 ships in the fleet were built after 1980, but they remain a crucial link connecting the state’s coastal cities to the rest of the world. The only way to reach Alaska’s capital, Juneau, for instance, is to fly or take a ferry. There are no roads in or out of the rugged terrain.

Many of the ferries’ passengers are Alaska residents shuttling from town to town or back from the mainland. But the trips also draw adventuresome tourists looking for an off-the-beaten-path vacation.

The naturalists, called “interpreters,” are a valuable tool for tourists and residents because staff members don’t have time to play tour guide, according to Doug Stuart, who served as the Tustumena’s naturalist for over a decade.

Stuart, 71, is now out of work for the first summer in 12 years. He gets social security, but does odd jobs in the winter to supplement his income. Without the money from the naturalist job, Stuart and his wife are selling their big house in town with a mortgage — where they currently live together after raising five children there— and moving to a smaller one on the outskirts of town that he’s been building for the last few years.

Erin Kirkland, the publisher of AKontheGO.com, a website dedicated to family travel and outdoor activities in Alaska, said she is sad to see the naturalists go because a lot more tourists are starting to take the ferries instead of cruise ships. She and her family also enjoy the interpreters when they take the ferries.

“They have all the maps. They’ve got all the information about the communities you’re headed to, the national forests, the national parks, and they will offer very insightful information,” she said. “It’s just a really nice fit.”

Interpreter programs on many ships began disappearing when funding from the federal government became less certain, Woodrow said.

Without knowing for sure whether the federal government would be able to pay for interpreters in the future, the Department of Transportation is now hesitant to sign a contract to rent out a room for them.

That’s space that could be used to transport Alaska’s tourists and in-state travelers, the department said.

This summer will be the first time in 23 years that the Tustumena doesn’t have a naturalist on board, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official Larry Bell.

It’s a loss for tourists because the state ferry system is one of the few ways to see the Aleutian Islands. Cruise ships mostly travel southeast Alaska, with some venturing to Anchorage and Kodiak.

“I’m really befuddled, because to save a few bucks on what they pay for me to ride and do all the work for the passengers is eventually going to bite them,” Stuart said. “I’m afraid that the state of Alaska is going to be hurt a little more deeply than just not getting ferry revenues. I think people just might not come to Alaska if they really wanted to do a ferry trip.”