BLM Alaska's campground curveball

Melinda Bolton

This year threw some curveballs to BLM Alaska’s campground management. To deliver uninterrupted access to public lands, managers offered a new opportunity to BLM staff in the state.

According to Glennallen Field Office (GFO) Manager Marnie Graham, during a normal year volunteer campground hosts would drive through Canada to take up their posts.

In 2020 though, getting hosts to the Last Frontier became nearly impossible with American travel through Canada being extremely limited.

“As May approached, we realized we were going to enter the season without [volunteer] hosts, and we were having trouble bringing on some of our summer seasonal staff,” Graham recalls.

BLM Alaska’s GFO manages four campgrounds and two waysides.

A view of a lake and a campground under blue skies from atop a nearby ridge. There is a mountain in the background.
A view of BLM Alaska-managed Tangle Lakes Campground from a nearby ridge. BLM photo by Laurie Cadzow, August 2020.

“Hosts usually work the summer season beginning May 15 and close up the sites on Labor Day,” Graham says. “The hosts greet guests, help maintain facilities like latrines, share information about regulations and safety, collect fees, and provide other support as needed.”

Just the presence of that person helps improve the experience for all users. They’re available to provide guidance to visitors, answer questions, pull old slips from campsites, and help with fee collection.

“It was a state and national priority to keep this access available,” she added.

Graham credits management with being ahead of the curve in ordering cleaning products, personal protective equipment, and hand sanitizers. Naturally, keeping everyone safe and healthy and providing access to public lands was a dual priority.

But how to staff the campgrounds and achieve both goals?

BLM Campground managers turned to their Alaskan staff and offered the opportunity for cross training, if the employee had supervisory approval to pull double duty.

When Planning and Environmental Specialist Laurie Cadzow found out about the opportunity, she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to respond in time before the spot at Alaska’s famous Tangle Lakes was filled. With her supervisor’s blessing, she said “YES”!

Cadzow explains why, “We’re all stuck inside because of the current situation. So, two weeks to work outside? Sign me up!”

Cadzow had previous experience, though it wasn’t required.

“The [Glennallen] Field Office gave me a punch list of my duties. I used to be a park ranger and worked with campground hosts, so it was turnkey for me,” Cadzow recalls. “My preparation was really two weeks of food planning.”

A woman sitting on a mountainside with a valley and more mountains in the background under blue skies
Laurie Cadzow during a reindeer survey in the Kigluaik Mountains as a Natural Resource Specialist working for the Anchorage Field Office. Photo courtesy Laurie Cadzow, summer, 2015.

Cadzow says it was hard to believe she was paid for her two weeks’ time spent at Tangle Lakes. Part of the need for supervisory approval is the staff member’s department still pays their wages. And the employee is expected to work their normal workload from the campsite.

Graham says it’s not a paid vacation, “They’re getting knocks at their door at all hours, picking up trash, restocking [restrooms and brochures], answering questions, putting down gravel, staining stuff. It’s not an easy job.”

“I would check the bathrooms for toilet paper three times a day,” Cadzow remembers. “Sometimes it would just evaporate!”

Another challenge in remote Alaska? Getting good enough cell service to call in to meetings.

“If we had better cell service in Alaska we could get more people working out on the resources that we manage and interact with the people,” Cadzow said.

She says the highlights, after four days of wind and rain, were the campers.

A woman and two young boys pose for a picture on their bicycles.
A woman and her two sons pose for a picture while riding their bikes in the parking lot at Tangle Lakes Campground. BLM photo by Laurie Cadzow, August 2020.

“Some of them have been coming back for 30 years to fish there; some nice Grayling came out,” Cadzow remembers. “And lots of blue berry pickers; a couple of Alaska Native ladies wearing their kuspuks singing songs from the sound of music.”

Graham says last year GFO recreation sites saw 210,000 visitors (not just campers). This summer brought 230,000 visitors to GFO recreation sites; almost all Alaskans.

Instead of striking out, BLM staff got creative, pulled double duty, and maintained strict health and safety protocols.

“I was sanitizing my hands at least 10 times a day,” Cadzow adds. “I was really grateful for the cleaning kit [staff at GFO] put together; that hand lotion they gave us was a life saver.”

On top of that, the BLM volunteers welcomed more people to public lands, and learned (or remembered) what it’s like to be the boots on the ground, answering the call of the customer.

A curveball turned home run.

You can explore volunteer camp host opportunities for 2021 at www.volunteer.gov. Alaska applications will be available in December.