August 18, 2011 |

Assembly OKs SEABA permit

The Haines Borough Assembly on Aug. 9 unanimously renewed a commercial permit for Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures (SEABA), but members said they want more information on how global positioning system data will be used to track helicopter skiing.

Members discussed the permit at a meeting on July 26, but approval was delayed to hear recommendations from police chief Gary Lowe, tourism director Tanya Carlson and harbormaster Ed Barrett. Lowe, Carlson and Barrett all supported renewal in writing.

A season-ending heli-skiing report issued in July showed what the borough clerk called two "deviations" by SEABA from borough heli-skiing regulations in 2011: a Feb. 21 Haska Creek bowl landing that was a demonstration for an assembly member, and a April 4 violation at the same location attributed to a misunderstanding by the borough manager.

On July 26, Scott Sundberg of SEABA said the company hadn’t "changed our permit in any way" from when it last was approved in January. SEABA exceeded its heli-skiing allotment by 165 skier days in 2010, according to the borough, and was required to seek assembly approval for its 2011 permit.

In 2011, SEABA used only 560 of its 750 allotted skier days, according to a report compiled by the clerk.

"As you know, last season was pretty much a disaster for Alaska, as far as heli-skiing is concerned, and we need to book people, we need to know that we’re in business and we need a permit," Sundberg told the assembly. "We, to our best ability, abided by the new ordinance last year and showed diligence."

At the July 26 meeting, resident Gary Hess called heli-skiing "one of the vital enterprises in our borough." Resident Deborah Vogt said she would like a closer examination of SEABA’s compliance since the company "so blatantly and egregiously violated its permit" in 2010.

Resident Thom Ely spoke at the Aug. 9 hearing and referred to the assembly’s repeated denial of a permit for tour operator Dave Button, who violated the terms of a previous permit.

Ely said he’s "rather dismayed that there seems to be a double standard of tour operator conduct" and said SEABA "should either be denied a permit, be on probation or if they have another violation, they are out."

The season-ending, heli-skiing report listed no violations by Alaska Heliskiing or Alaska Mountain Guides. An ordinance adopted in March increased the borough’s skier-day limit to 2,600 to be shared by SEABA, Alaska Heliskiing and Alaska Mountain Guides.

The report said 1,931 skier days were used this season, including 1,363 by Alaska Heliskiing and eight by Alaska Mountain Guides.

According to the ordinance, the heli-skiing tour operators must use GPS technology "capable of tracking and preserving information establishing the route taken by the helicopter to and from the skiing and snowboarding area and all landings," and the data must be provided to the borough every other week during the season.

Assemblyman Steve Vick said he would like to know more about how the GPS data will be used. Borough manager Mark Earnest was out of town for the Aug. 9 meeting.

"I agree with Steve that there needs to be a clearer policy as to what the staff’s role is in dealing with that (GPS) information," said assemblywoman Joanne Waterman.