A letter from the National Park Service

After hearing some park-related discussion at the Nov. 2 Borough Assembly meeting, I thought it would be helpful to pass along some clarifying information and some thoughts on a couple issues.

One question that came up at the meeting was why the federal government does not pay taxes on buildings in Skagway if they are used exclusively for housing. Why the National Park Service owns housing and why we don’t pay taxes on it are both good questions. We operate three housing units in town: the Peniel Mission Building on Sixth Avenue, a duplex on 14th Avenue and a house on Main Street. We will soon add a fourth housing unit when we construct an employee dormitory on NPS land on Fourth Avenue behind the Pantheon Saloon Building.

I believe owning and operating these housing units is a good business decision, similar to any of the large tourism-related businesses operating in town. All of our employees who live in these buildings and in the housing units we operate in Dyea pay rent regardless of pay grade or seasonal or permanent status.

Ideally I would like to consolidate all of our housing in historic buildings in the Skagway Historic District that have been entrusted to our care. That would give us the ability to make a few good housing structures available to the community while preserving some gold rush architecture at the same time. I’ve spoken publicly about this several times over the past six years. However, it’s not as simple as it sounds, since under existing regulations the park would not receive any profits from selling our non-historic buildings and therefore wouldn’t immediately have the funds available to retrofit historic buildings for housing use.

I understand the concerns about loss of tax revenue to the community because federal property is, by law, non-taxable. However this is more than offset in Skagway by the Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program. This program is administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior, under which the National Park Service operates, and it was coincidentally established in the same year – 1976 – as Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. Its purpose as stated on the Department of the Interior website is to provide “Federal payments to local governments that help offset losses in property taxes due to non-taxable Federal lands within their boundaries.” PILT payments to the Municipality of Skagway Borough have increased substantially over the past 10 years, from $61,612 in 2008 to $171,746 in 2017.

Using the municipality’s own publicly available data, the property tax revenue from all federal buildings in Skagway – National Park Service, Customs and Border Protection and the Postal Service – regardless of what they are currently used for, would come to about $90,000. Through the PILT program the municipality received $81,000 more than that. In addition, the six buildings we rent out to retail establishments (with all new leases going to local businesses under my tenure) pay both property taxes and sales taxes on their operations, similarly to other retail operations in town.

I’m very open to any constructive criticism and new ideas for how the National Park Service can better serve the community within our Congressional mandate to preserve in public ownership buildings and trails associated with the 1898 gold rush for the benefit and inspiration of the American public. I think it’s always helpful to have these discussions based on the most accurate and up to date information available.

While the National Park Service is charged with protecting and sharing American heritage with all Americans, I’m proud of what our agency contributes to the local community in terms of economic benefits – between $5 and $15 million depending on whether you measure indirect impacts – and the more difficult to measure quality of life benefits of having parklands so close and accessible to our town. In addition our employees contribute in many ways to the community, volunteering thousands of hours for a wide variety of causes, shopping locally and adding to the population of our top-rated school. We are a year-round employer that recruits whenever possible through our local hire authority, under which most of our employees come on board.

In my 30+ years with the National Park Service, I’ve seen many small towns around the United States work to “create” national park sites where there is a lot less to work with in terms of natural and cultural resources than was present in Skagway when Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park was established in 1976. In my reading of the park’s history, it is apparent we have been given a gift by some visionary longtime residents of Skagway who asked for a national park site beginning as far back as Elmer Rasmuson’s work in 1933. If properly cared for this gift can be shared at much greater value with future generations. These fascinating, authentic old buildings and special places like the Chilkoot Trail will be around for our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren to enjoy long after we’re gone. Just as current Skagway residents have, whether here for 70 years, 7 years or 7 months, they will learn new things and make new memories in these special places. I’m guessing not many people in these future generations will be wishing we hadn’t given them this gift.

Mike Tranel • Superintendent, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park