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$3 million in CARES funds will be used for Anchorage trails, beetle-kill spruce mitigation

The "Outdoor Public Lands Program" is described as an opportunity to employ furloughed or...
The "Outdoor Public Lands Program" is described as an opportunity to employ furloughed or unemployed individuals to work on various projects. The Muni says applicants will go through a union hall for hiring and training.(KTUU)
Published: Aug. 20, 2020 at 9:11 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The proposed use of Anchorage’s CARES Act funding has drawn enough criticism to get the attention of the Department of the U.S. Treasury, and the Office of the Inspector General. Mayor Ethan Berkowitz has said the “tens of millions” of the municipality’s COVID-relief funding will remain on hold until federal approval is given, but residents still have questions about some of the decisions that have been made.

Richard Steiner is a former University of Alaska, Anchorage professor who has been cited in the past as a biologist and a wildlife consultant. He told KTUU on Thursday that he doesn’t oppose the entire spending plan, but he fails to see the connection between certain items included by the municipality.

“Particularly, the building of mountain bike trails on the hillside, which have absolutely nothing to do with COVID response,” Steiner said.

Steiner is referring to $3 million that will be allocated to the Outdoor Public Lands Program. A description on Muni.org reads as follows:

“The Lands Program funds will be used to fund specific work projects, with the intention to provide work and invest in important community infrastructure.  Community members who may be underemployed or out of work entirely due to COVID-19 can apply for these positions. Applicants will go through a union hall for hiring and training.”

Parks and Recreation Director Josh Durand estimates that the fund will result in at least 25 news jobs within his department, along with an additional need for contracting jobs out to local companies. The bulk of that work will consist of removing beetle kill spruce from park lands, and creating and maintaining new trails. According to Durand, these projects are “shovel ready,” meaning they have already been approved by the public.

“There is a fair amount of people in our community that have lost employment or been furloughed under the pandemic -- and with that, this provides an opportunity to get furloughed employees and unemployed people back to work and we are able to do it with a very quick turnaround,” Durand told KTUU.

Steiner argues that any jobs resulting from these projects will be temporary, and do not make sense in terms of a COVID response.

“Just saying ‘We’ve got $100 million, what do we do with it?‘... ‘There’s a lot of pet projects that we’ve been trying to do for years, let’s fund some of those’ ... That’s not the way to do it,” Steiner said.

When asked about concerns regarding the use of funds for trail and park improvements, Durand noted that trail counters are indicating a 30 percent increase in trail usage since the pandemic began.

“Clearly there are jobs being generated in the moment, so that benefits our economy,” Durand said. “In addition to that, parks and trails are a building block of our economy. They bring people together, they make people want to live here.”

Another, separate item listed in the municipality’s plan is titled: “Public Lands Jobs Program v.2 (Eagle River & Girdwood, Indigenous Wayfinding)” with an allocation $1.5 million. The program’s description reads:

“The Lands Program funds will be used to hire individuals to help improve or expand soft surface trails and other shovel-ready projects in Girdwood and Eagle River, and to help with the installation of an Indigenous Wayfinding project.”

Click HERE for a full list of the Municipality’s proposed CARES ACT spending items.

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