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Historic USFS vessel up for lease


Dan Rudy / Petersburg Pilot

The M/V Chugach launched in 1925 and remained in service until 2015. The historic 62-foot long, 14 1/2-foot wide vessel spent many years operating out of Petersburg.

In 1925, the M/V Chugach launched in Seattle and it ended up being the last wooden ranger boat used in the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) fleet. The vessel faithfully remained in service until 2015, transporting scientists, government officials, supplies, and guests throughout Southcentral and Southeast Alaska.

Up until 1953, the historic ranger boat was based out of Cordova then it was relocated to Petersburg. The vessel is currently out of the water in Wrangell for scheduled repairs. The Chugach is growing accustomed to repairs in its old age and the USFS is working on limited funding so regular transportation of personnel on the vessel any longer is not an option. The USFS is seeking proposals from the public to lease, adaptively re-use and preserve the vessel, and the first 30-day comment period ended this week.

"What we're seeing right now are not really fleshed out proposals, but more like ideas," said Keri Hicks, Heritage Program Leader Forest Service Alaska Region.

The Chugach was part of a ranger boat fleet that once numbered 11 strong, and worked along 12,000 miles of Alaska coastline. By 2005, the majority of the other ranger boats were in private ownership. The Chugach is 62-feet long and she's just over 14-feet wide. It is listed on the National Historic Register of Places, and in conjunction with the National Historic Preservation Act the agency is required to take certain steps to ask the public what could be done with the vessel.

"The public is going to have really good out-of-the-box ideas that we ourselves may not have come up with on our own," Hicks said. "We're hoping that, in this case, that it has the potential to be kind of an economic development opportunity for someone in a community."

People proposing their idea for the future of the vessel were asked for a brief proposal with an alternative use idea or feasibility plan. All lease proposals would be considered, and particular consideration will be given to proposals that best preserve the boat's historic integrity.

Hicks said the chance of an additional comment period is likely, with less than 10 already received. The plan is honing proposals and narrowing them down to two or three. The finalists will be presented to USFS leadership and for a decision on how to continue. Hicks is currently working on a feasibility study with an architectural historian to explore what really could be possible, she said.

"It's so significant to the history of the Forest Service here in Alaska," Hicks said of the vessel. "It's the last, so it's a little bit different than maybe the other ranger boats vessels that have been previously removed from the fleet."

The importance of the vessel's character and integrity is key from a USFS stance. The vessel is scheduled to wrap up repairs soon, but there's no rush to get it back in the water, Hicks said.

"It's also kind of sad that it's going out of service, so it's kind of mixed emotions," Hicks said. "And I've only been familiar with it for the past year. There are folks in this region who have taken numerous trips on it and are very passionate about it."

One of those people fortunate enough to spend time aboard the old wooden vessel is Rachel Myron, USFS archeologist in Juneau. She's been off and on with the USFS since the late-1980s. Myron used the Chugach and another ranger vessel the M/V Sitka in Heritage Program trips to visit and inspect archeological and historical properties. A lot of the work is on the ground and labor intensive, so having a good skipper was a huge perk.

"Whether it was the Chugach Ranger or Sitka Ranger, you could work with a competent skipper, which we so often had," Myron said. "We were able to shuttle ashore and then come back at night to a nice cabin-like environment, where actually, the skipper would generally prepare meals for us as well."

Most trips lasted 10 days and the ranger boats made it possible to conduct work in remote places and along tough shoreline. They also allowed native tribal members to come on extended trips to work closely with USFS staff. The collaborations usually lasted three days, and the time was valuable and maximized an efficient transfer of local knowledge. Myron calls the days aboard ranger boats "a gift." Unfortunately, Myron said USFS analysis of ranger boats don't consider the emotional attachment the vessels conjure.

"I just miss those boats," she said.

She still thinks about trips taken with Petersburg mariner and Chugach captain Chuck Thynes.


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