JUNEAU, Alaska — 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 lasts only a few seconds. The 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 few 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 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 fleet’s 11 ships this year.
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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 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, 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 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.
Many of the ferries’ passengers are Alaska residents shuttling from town to town or back from the mainland. But the trips also draw tourists looking for an off-the-beaten-path vacation.
The naturalists 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 more than 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 raised five children — and moving to a smaller one on the outskirts that he’s been building the past few years.
Erin Kirkland, the publisher of AKontheGO.com, a website dedicated to family travel and outdoor activities in Alaska, said she was sad to see the naturalists go because 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 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 the Tustumena doesn’t have a naturalist on board, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official Larry Bell.