Kayaking in Sitka's Blue Lake is part of the SEAtrails network of regional recreation opportunities.
One of the projects awarded a grant in 2004, the Rainbird trail in Ketchikan.
The 19 communities SEAtrails encompasses. The organization wants to work with every community in Southeast Alaska.
The SEAtrails board of directors. Back row: Jim Mitchell, Karen Petersen, Elaine Price, Ron Crenshaw, Annie Boyce, Zieak McFarland and Andrew Thomas. Front row: Karen Elton, Karen Smith and Amber King.
Trails in Petersburg are part of the SEAtrails network of regional recreation opportunities.
Story last updated at 3/18/2009 - 9:34 pm
Editor's note: This is the first of series of articles exploring how travel and tourism affect rural Southeast communities.
What do Southeast Alaskan communities have in common? The answer is easy: the water, the forests, the wildlife, the land.
A volunteer organization called SEAtrails believes the terrain is the best pathway to improving the quality of life in communities throughout the region - both in terms of personal enjoyment for residents and economic development for communities.
SEAtrails comprises a collection of trails in and around 19 Southeast Alaskan communities from Hydaburg to Yakutat. Of course, in the Inside Passage, paths don't always involve land - the SEAtrails include hiking and biking trails, canoe and kayak routes and scuba diving sites.
A central point to begin planning travel around the region is important in encouraging independent travel to rural areas, said Amber King, SEAtrails treasurer. After all, the logistics of getting around Southeast Alaska can be daunting to a first-time visitor,
"They start looking at it and give up and get on a cruise ship," she said.
But cruise ships don't deliver visitors to every Southeast community, nor does every community want cruise ships. Regardless, the SEAtrails board believes every community can benefit from independent travelers who come to hike, kayak, bike or dive in remote areas.
King grew up in Petersburg and in her life has visited almost every community in the SEAtrails network. She said that while residents of larger communities like Juneau, Sitka and Ketchikan have access to well-maintained trails and maps, many of the smaller communities don't.
"Some of these communities don't even have a trails," she said.
The mission of SEAtrails is to develop, distribute and maintain maps, signage and information about trails throughout the region; to work with communities, federal and local agencies and groups to improve trail systems and infrastructure; and to generate more opportunities for local businesses that cater to independent travelers.
Communities can choose which trails are listed on the SEAtrails network.
"They nominate a trail (and) they can remove it at any time," King said. "It's what the communities want, so it's been driven by them."
The organizations' Web site, www.seatrails.org, compiles the "uniqueness of each community," King said. The site is designed as a resource to help travelers and residents alike explore the region.
"We wanted to have one place where (people) can go get information," King said.
SEAtrails got its start at a time when a similar statewide organization disbanded.
Davey Lubin, of Sitka, served on a state board for Trails and Recreational Access for Alaska (TRAK) when Tony Knowles was governor. On the board were liaisons from state and federal agencies, and representatives from organizations concerned with recreational access and related issues.
"With that forum I was able to introduce an idea I had had about reinventing ... an industry for Southeast Alaska," Lubin said. "Not an extracting industry (but one which is) 100 percent sustainable into perpetuity, and that was SEAtrails, a Southeast Alaska trail system. In that venue of the TRAK board everyone just gave their thumbs up to it. They gave us a lot of support financially (and) logistically to get that thing off the ground."
Under Gov. Frank Murkowski, the board was dissolved, but the groundwork for SEAtrails had been set.
Lubin said former Sen. Ted Stevens was very helpful, as was the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.
"Lo and behold, a million dollars showed up," he said.
In 2003, SEAtrails received $1 million in Public Lands Highway Discretionary (PLHD) funding from Congress for trail projects, planning and marketing. From these funds, SEAtrails awarded almost $120,000 in SEAtrails grants to 10 communities for trail projects, maps and signs. The organization's next round of grant will be presented in the coming weeks. King said the organization had received grant proposals for about $380,000, all for new projects in Southeast communities.
"The idea was to level the playing field and spread the prosperity across Southeast," Lubin said. "By establishing a broad network of trails, (we could) improve quality of life of people who live there (and also justify it) for financial reasons. It just seemed like a win-win for everyone."
Opposition to the organization came from people who saw SEAtrails as "a kind of greenie organization," Lubin said.
"We really weren't," he added. "We were a viable industry. The obvious asset here is the terrain."
SEAtrails works with existing organizations, such as Juneau's Trail Mix, and offers support to the many communities without such organizations.
"Sitka is in good shape with Sitka Trail Works, Juneau is in good shape with Trail Mix, Ketchikan has (Ketchikan Outdoor Recreation and Trails Coalition), but these other communities didn't really have any kind of organization whatsoever," Lubin said.
Lubin has retired from the board of SEAtrails but still offers his input and experience. He believes that for the organization to be successful into the future, there needs to be more than just a volunteer board.
"It's still not institutionalized to the degree that we would have hoped," he said. "We'd envisioned a marketing director, a trail director, going to the communities and making sure the grants (were carried out)."
The all-volunteer board is spread through Southeast and mainly meets by teleconference, rarely in person.
"It's a really, really difficult animal because it's spread throughout the region and it makes it really hard to get everyone together," Lubin said.
Despite logistical challenges, the group has quite a few success stories under its belt.
"There's a really great SEAtrails website. It's an incredible resource for someone visiting Southeast Alaska. It's like a clearing house, a one-stop shop for trails, transportation and logistics. That's huge and that was very expensive," Lubin said. "There are several hundreds of thousands of dollars of trail grants awarded by SEAtrails to the communities. There are trails all over the SEAtrails communities that were partially founded by SEAtrails."
Additionally, there is a SEAtrails map, and a business and marketing plan was recently contracted for and produced by the McDowell Group in Juneau.
Lubin points to Coffman Cove has a community that has been able to maintain itself after logging dried up by appealing to independent travels.
"It was a vibrant logging town on Prince of Wales and then it almost dried and blew away," he said. "Now, there are connections between Coffman Cove and Juneau and Haines. All these communities that have been brought together by SEAtrails. It's allowed these diverse communities to find common ground. We do have incredible opportunities for discovery whether you're in Angoon or Gustavus or Hoonah or Skagway or you name it."
Part of the link the organization provides is between federal agencies and local needs, Lubin said. And the organization provides another link as well, he added. Trail building is something that just about everyone in Southeast can support, no matter what else they do or don't disagree on.
"In Sitka here we've got this just incredible growth of trail resources and a community of supporters (who).... don't find commonality in too many things," he said. "But everyone's for trails."
Overall, King also sees the mission of SEAtrails as building a regional community.
"In Southeast, we're all neighbors. (SEAtrails) is community building in a very grass roots way," she said. "For the number of people in Southeast, I think we should start thinking that way."
Learn more about SEAtrails at www.seatrails.org.