- Associated Press - Sunday, April 19, 2015

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - This year Anchorage celebrates its big birthday - 100 years - and next year it will be the National Park Service’s turn. Alaska’s parks are already prepping for the party.

About 2.68 million visitors took advantage of Alaska’s 23 national parks in last year and state Park Service spokesman John Quinley said that number is expected to climb this year and next.

“2014 was the highest number of visitors to Alaska parks and the whole national park system, so we think the number will continue to grow,” Quinley said.

The number of visitors last year eclipsed 2013, which was also a record for Alaska, by about 100,000.

Those visitors contributed about $1.1 billion to the state’s economy, according to the Park Service.

Alaska’s parks cover about 54 million acres - more than 60 percent of the national park system.

The Park Service is asking for an additional $2.4 million for Alaska in its 2016 fiscal year budget proposal to increase operational capacity as part of its Centennial Initiative.

Nationwide, the Park Service centennial dovetails with President Barack Obama’s push to encourage younger park visitors. In February the White House unveiled its “Every Kid in a Park” initiative, a plan to get kids to parks across the country, whether they are national, state or local places.

Quinley said Alaska park officials will be working with other public land managers to broaden the reach of the program without duplicating efforts.

“It’s really about building awareness and creating a new generation of park visitors,” he said.

The president also announced that all fourth graders and their families will get free admission to national parks for one year beginning with the 2015-16 school year.

At Denali National Park, a backcountry adventure program for high school students and field classes through the Murie Science and Learning Center and Alaska Geographic will be expanded to try to get more young people excited about the park, Quinley said.

Several construction projects across the state have been timed for completion just prior to the 2016 centennial summer season, he said.

In Southeast, a new Tribal house is planned at the headquarters of Glacier Bay National Park near Bartlett Cove. Construction there should begin soon.

The Soapy Smith Parlor at Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park in Skagway will have a new look next year too, according to Quinley.

“We acquired the building a couple years ago and have been getting it ready for the public,” he said.

About $1.8 million of safety and restoration work is set to begin at the popular Kennecott copper mine in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Quinley said much of that work is deferred maintenance that is part of a larger upkeep effort at the century-old mine site.

There is a $5 million line item in the 2016 budget proposal for a permanent bridge across the Brooks River in Katmai National Park. The bridge provides access to a safe viewing area for park visitors hoping to see brown bears fishing for salmon in the Brooks River. Quinley said the bridge would actually save money in the long run as crews currently install and remove a floating bridge each year.

In Kenai Fjords National Park a $6.1 million project will raise Exit Glacier Road to avoid flooding that has become common and keep the park open to visitors throughout the summer. Work there will commence next year.

Statewide, the Park Service has $4.2 million of small deferred maintenance projects planned to for this year, according to Quinley.

2015 summer season

A small uptick in cruise capacity should add a few thousand more visitors to Alaska this year.

About 950,000 cruisers traveled Southeast’s Inside Passage last year, and larger ships scheduled for Alaska in 2015 should add about 3 percent more visitors this year, according to the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Southcentral should see about 330,000 cruise visitors this summer, roughly an 8 percent increase over a solid 2014 season.

Holland America Line’s Statendam will call on Anchorage nine times this year, after the city had five cruise ship stops last year and none in 2013.

Cruise ships have brought nearly 1 million travelers to Alaska over the last few years, a vast improvement from 2009-12 when the global recession hit Alaska’s travel industry hard.

The Alaska Railroad is expecting a strong ridership this year as well based on early bookings. The railroad pulls passenger cars for several cruise-tour companies that offer combination land and sea tours across the state.

In March the Seattle Times reported that the city’s port is anticipating nearly 900,000 passengers on 192 sailings bound for Alaska.

Seattle reaped more than $400 million in economic benefit from Alaska travelers beginning and ending their trips in the city last year, according to the Times.

The first ship will embark from Seattle May 2 and the last sailing is set for Sept. 27.

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Information from: (Anchorage) Alaska Journal of Commerce, http://www.alaskajournal.com

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