Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966

 
 

Major heli-ski issues up in air

 

February 17, 2011



With less than a week until possible adoption of a revised helicopter skiing ordinance, a mayor-appointed work group has yet to reach consensus on its most controversial elements, including numbers of skier days, a map of permitted areas, and allowing a third operator.

"These are all contentious issues that will require a lengthy public process," work group member Joe Ordonez said Tuesday.

New to the issue was one company’s intent, stated Feb. 8, to establish a new heli-port at 26 Mile this season.

While it hasn’t taken a vote of members, the group appears to have general agreement on a number of other issues, including voluntary flight paths and use of global positioning system technology for flight tracking.

Recommended flight corridors and a shared-use policy have been described under a voluntary agreement document, separate from the ordinance. Borough attorney Brooks Chandler has said the Federal Aviation Administration, not the borough, has the authority to regulate flight paths.

The shared-use area includes Telemark Ridge. Non-motorized, recreational backcountry users would request to use a specific area of the ridge at least 48 hours in advance so it would be free of helicopters. The request would be limited to a maximum of three consecutive days of usage, and an overall total of 10 days per month per user.

The work group next meets 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 22, in the assembly chambers. A fourth public hearing on the ordinance is scheduled for that night’s assembly meeting.

Skier days drew much of the discussion last week, after Rob Goldberg of the work group explained a proposal to raise the cap from 1,200 to 2,600.

The current 140 photographer days would be converted into 700 skier days to reflect usage from staffers who previously had not been counted when they accompanied photographers.

Work group member Carolyn Weishahn said the ordinance’s reference to the number of skier days should be left blank when it goes to the assembly for approval.

"There has been a perception proposed that these things that are coming before the assembly do have the consensus of the group," Weishahn said. "It may or may not be a fact, because we haven’t actually taken consensus votes on anything, other than just kind of general discussion."

Goldberg responded, "I agree; I think at this point, it’s really up to the assembly, and we could have just left that blank in this document and let the assembly decide. They’re going to decide, anyway."

He has collaborated with borough manager Mark Earnest and borough attorney Chandler on recent changes to the ordinance. Goldberg said he took more of a leadership role after he chaired a work group meeting in Mayor Jan Hill’s absence. He later asked the group if he could work with Earnest and Chandler.

The trio attached numbers to work group discussions, including about merging photographer days and skier days, due to declining interest from photographers.

Goldberg has presented to the assembly a proposal for a skier-day allocation of Alaska Heliskiing, 1,500; Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures (SEABA), 900; and Alaska Mountain Guides (AMG), 200. AMG has yet to be approved as the third heli-skiing operator in the borough.

Weishahn said the work group had only briefly discussed the idea of adding a third operator, and she is opposed to a "built-in reason to increase the skier days."

The latest draft of the ordinance lists Haines Airport, the Stewart landing strip at 18 Mile Haines Highway and a heliport at 33 Mile Haines Highway as heliports to be used for commercial ski tours, along with "any heliport authorized by the Haines Borough Planning Commission as a conditional use."

Scott Sundberg of SEABA was absent from Tuesday’s meeting.

Ordonez said Sundberg had broken the trust of the group due to a "sneaky maneuver" when SEABA’s permit was approved in January.

"At the end of the last (work group) meeting, Scott Sundberg announced that he had full intentions of using his 26 Mile property as a heliport and that he specifically did not include that in his borough application, which was passed by the assembly," Ordonez said.

Earnest said the heliport has yet to be approved as a conditional use. Goldberg said there are several concerns near Sundberg’s property.

"This yellow line represents a mile radius around, and you can see there are 20 or so occupied residences, some as close as just a few hundred yards away from this proposed heliport," he said.

Ordonez, who was out of town for several recent meetings, said the scope of the work group has been too broad and said a professional facilitator should be hired. He said members should first focus on GPS technology and voluntary flight paths, and GPS data should be collected before new lines are drawn on the map.

"The flight paths were something that there was no argument about, and the GPS, there was no argument about, but you cannot have the GPS without the amended map, because it was apparent to me early on, in talking with the heli-ski operators, that the reason they didn’t use the GPS was because the map didn’t work," Goldberg said.