February 10, 2011 |

More skier days, 3rd operator proposed; Plan would up skier days to 2,600, incorporate 'photographer days'

Resident Rob Goldberg said he stopped answering his phone following a proposal to more than double the Haines Borough’s heli-skiing skier-day limit to 2,600.

Goldberg, a member of a mayor-appointed heli-skiing work group, has worked on a revised helicopter skiing ordinance with borough manager Mark Earnest and borough attorney Brooks Chandler.

At Tuesday’s Haines Borough Assembly meeting, Goldberg explained his suggestion to increase skier days to 2,600, up from the current 1,200 for a season to run from Feb. 1 to May 3. He also would scrap a proposal for designated low-impact areas with no skier-day limit.

Goldberg said the change to 2,600 skier days would lump photographer days in with the pool of skier days.

The borough has defined a skier day as "one individual skier or snowboarder participating in a commercial ski tour or a commercial ski production on one particular day or any portion of a day excluding guides." Photographer days, though, lacked a similar definition for support staff.

"(The current ordinance) allowed for 140 photographer days ‘and staff,’ and this staff was never quantified," Goldberg said. "I got the numbers from the last two years (226 photographers and 772 staff) and figured out how many staff went along with each photographer. It turned out to be about 3.4 staff per photographer. Well, 3.4 in a helicopter really causes the same impact as five in a helicopter, because that’s what it can hold."

The assembly Tuesday held a third public hearing for the ordinance and advanced an amended version to a fourth hearing scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 22. The approved draft still has a skier-day limit of 1,200 and references low-impact areas, but the assembly is expected to commit to a skier-day number at its next meeting.

Goldberg had presented revisions to work group members Tuesday before the assembly meeting, after assembly packets had been prepared. The work group’s next meeting is 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 15, in the assembly chambers.

Goldberg said an updated skier- day definition would be "anyone who gets in the helicopter, except the pilot and the guide." Goldberg said the 140 photographer-days cap was equivalent to 700 skier days, or 140 multiplied by five.

Member Steve Vick said residents would have "sticker shock" if they saw 2,600 skier days in the ordinance.

"I like the idea that a photography day becomes a skier day," he said to Goldberg. "It’s very clear, and I love the definition, too, that you gave. I do have a problem with the idea that 3.4 average skier days equals five."

Vick said the assembly should aim for incremental growth with heli-skiing.

"The idea to do away with the photographer days but give more absolute skier days is a way to quantify something that’s already going on," said member Joanne Waterman. "The industry has stressed that the trend of the photography companies and film companies coming up here is starting to go away, so they want that shift in being able to still use those days."

Goldberg said 1,900 skier days would represent the "status quo" for the borough, if photographer days become skier days. He said another 500 days were added to give heli-skiing tour operators some room to avoid last year’s issue when Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures (SEABA) approached its skier-day limit and requested additional days.

"One of the changes in the work draft is that the ability for the companies to come back to the assembly during the season for an increase goes away," borough manager Earnest said. "The idea is that you want to set it at a level that should do it for that year. This idea of having an in-season request for a bump goes away, with the way that it’s currently constructed."

The overall limit would reach 2,600 if the borough allocated 200 skier days to Alaska Mountain Guides (AMG). Goldberg suggested 1,500 skier days for Alaska Heliskiing, 900 for SEABA and 200 for AMG. The assembly in December postponed a decision on AMG’s permit application, and the work group was to consider whether a third operator should be allowed.

"Right now, you guys know that we have a lot more work to be completed for the new ordinance, and I think it’s premature to consider allowing Alaska Mountain Guides to operate out of the airport," SEABA guide Matthew Borish said during the public comment portion of Tuesday’s meeting. Borish said adding another operator would be a safety issue.

Resident Scott Carey also was opposed to expanding heli-skiing to a third operator. He said the skier day increase was too drastic.

"I don’t believe photographer days were ever meant to be lumped into skier days, and now I’m just amazed here," Carey said.