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Alaska ferries lose nature experts to budget cuts

JUNEAU, Alaska — Alaska’s state-owned ferries, which shuttle residents and tourists between remote towns on the coasts of Washington state, Canada, and Alaska, are reducing costs by eliminating the use of naturalists on all but one ship.

In past summers, several of the 11 vessels have had a nature expert who teaches passengers about the stunning local scenery and animals.

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State officials say the program may eventually be brought back, but for now the plan is to replace the experts with computer programs and brochures on the so-called Alaska Marine Highway System, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

With state revenues declining, departments have been asked to bring expenses down by eliminating items that do not affect core functions.

Naturalists, who are hired and paid by the US Forest Service or the US 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 department responsible for the ferry system.

Only four of the ships in the aging 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 adventuresome tourists.

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