Borough-managed parks and trails are ready to welcome users into the summer season, if only officials can find enough people to hire to keep them running.
Each summer the Matanuska-Susitna Borough pluses-up its crew to a seasonal staff of about 80 part time workers, with people working on the trails themselves, trailhead maintenance such as bathroom cleaning and other maintenance tasks like mowing, said Hugh Leslie, who heads up the parks and recreation department for the Borough.
But this year the Borough is having an abnormally hard time filling the jobs, he said.
“We’ve gone out soliciting employees three times and we’ve got some on staff we’ve been able to pick up along the way, but we have a number of people that have not responded to the phone to call to interview, or even after the interview didn’t accept the job or did not return the phone calls,” he said. “So we’re trying to get going with a reduced number of people.”
Leslie’s hiring problems are part of a nationwide issue also faced by many Alaskan companies, which experts say is likely caused by a combination of COVID-19 relief funding, workers still afraid of catching COVID, a childcare shortage and, unique to Alaska, Canadian borders closed to most travel, according to the Anchorage Daily News.
For Lesile that shortage it could mean stalled trail work and maintenance tasks that impact outdoor users. Anyone interested in applying for a summer recreation job can find listings at Governmentjobs.com/careers/matsugov. According to that site, hourly pay starts at about $17.50, depending on the role.
Meanwhile, the current Borough staff continues to work on various recreation and trail improvements, Leslie said, with multiple projects hitting their final phase and ready for full public use.
At Fish Creek Park in Big Lake, a new disabled user accessible trail and viewing platform is almost complete. And a reconfigured campground with new, marked sites complete with bathrooms, fire rings and picnic tables will open for the season at Sunshine Creek Recreation Site off the Parks Highway between Willow and Talkeetna.
Up the Glenn Highway in Glacier View, plans are still moving forward to create an improved trail and official Borough trail access to Lionshead, a small Butte-like overlook just off the highway and adjacent to the Matanuska Glacier.
Currently, hikers are asked to call a number on the gate to gain permission to enter and hike across AT&T land on their way up to the top. But the trail, which can be very muddy and subject to erosion, is easy to miss. Instead, hikers might inadvertently find themselves following the AT&T tower path, only to end up on the wrong side on the area on a rock scramble. Leslie said the Borough is working to get an official easement with AT&T on the books so the trail can be maintained and hikers can park and access the area without calling the designated phone number.
In Palmer, he said, officials are working on a Matanuska River Park development plan still in progress. The campground in that area, which typically opens Memorial Day weekend, is available for use now after opening early to support the Great Alskan Fly In help May 8 and 9 at the state fairgrounds and Palmer Airport.
Outside of trail improvements, Leslie said his office is also in the midst of several facility upgrades. Construction is ongoing to replace the Willow library, for example, while they plan to start roofing projects on the Brett Memorial Ice Arena and the Wasilla High School pool with funds remaining in the 2016 voter-approved bond package.
At top of mind for many recreation users might be the Borough’s new plan to enforce fines on trail and recreation users who ignore the $5 parking fee or do not hold an annual parking pass. Approved in late April, the plan includes mailing scofflaws a $40 fine notice. Enforcement begins in June, with Borough employees leaving notices on windshields over May warning of the change. If paid within five days, the fine can be converted to pay for the Borough’s $40 annual parking pass.
Although Leslie expected pushback over the new fines, he said his office has received no feedback at all.
“We haven’t taken one phone call yet for or against,” he said. “The benefit of the way we’re going to roll this out is that it isn’t punitive, so much as ‘fix it or ticket.’ We’re going to assume that you intended on paying and you just forgot.”