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


GPS data a trade secret? Heli-ski companies want coordinates to be confidential


January 12, 2012

The Haines Borough Assembly in a 4-2 vote Tuesday introduced an ordinance that would make global positioning system data for helicopter skiing confidential.

"The only thing about this ordinance is you have to be satisfied that the GPS data is indeed a trade secret, and the people who bear the burden of that proof are the operators themselves," said Mayor Stephanie Scott.

Members Debra Schnabel and Norm Smith were opposed.

"To say you don’t want to disclose where you are operating in a public arena on a public permit seems a bit overdone, somehow, to me," Schnabel said.

The ordinance is scheduled for a first public hearing on Tuesday, Jan. 24.

Under current borough code, "Every commercial ski tour operator shall use global positioning system equipment capable of tracking and preserving information establishing the route taken by the helicopter to and from the skiing and snowboarding area and all landings."

Member Joanne Waterman said GPS results are collected for the borough to investigate any complaints that operators have violated agreements.

"Being on the heli-ski work group, this was a topic of conversation, and my understanding was it was always the intent that this information was going to be confidential," Waterman said. "I still support that."

According to the ordinance up for discussion Tuesday, "Information submitted to the borough as required by this section and in the possession of the borough shall be kept confidential except when its production is required in an official investigation or court proceeding."

"It is patterned after other proprietary information that businesses have," said borough manager Mark Earnest. "The most obvious parallel would be individual sales tax records."

April e-mails from Sean Brownell of Alaska Heliskiing and Scott Sundberg of Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures (SEABA) included in this week’s meeting packet requested that GPS data be proprietary.

Both messages responded to borough clerk Julie Cozzi, who said the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Lynn Canal Conservation and resident Thom Ely had sought GPS records.

"SEABA does not want any GPS information released to any individual, organization, non-profit or government agency," Sundberg wrote. "We feel very strongly about this and will litigate if any information is released."

Assemblyman Smith, who called into the meeting, expressed disgust with Sundberg’s words, challenging, "He can sue me if he wants to."

Brownell wrote that the data should remain confidential unless "there is a specific complaint about an area with a date then they could possibly look at the data that corresponds to the complaint."

"Otherwise the info should remain confidential," he wrote. "You will be giving away our trade secrets and competitors in the heliskiing industry would have access to all our research and confidential information about where we ski."

Eli Fierer of Alaska Mountain Guides, which became the borough’s third heli-skiing operator last season, wrote that he had "no objections whatsoever" to releasing the data. No heli-skiing industry representatives spoke at Tuesday’s meeting.

Cozzi this week said the GPS information was released to Fish and Game, LCC and Ely, on the recommendation of the borough attorney. That prompted the drafting of a new ordinance to make the information confidential.

Residents Scott Carey, Pam Randles, Heidi Robichaud and Deborah Vogt spoke against the change on Tuesday, citing a need for accountability.

"To have an expectation of secrecy over something that is performed in the public view is counterintuitive to me, and I don’t think it would pass state law," Vogt said.

Carey referred to Alaska Statute that defines a "trade secret" as "information that derives independent economic value, actual or potential, from not being generally known to, and not being readily ascertainable by proper means by, other persons who can obtain economic value from its disclosure or use."

"Any competitor can go up and see where the helicopters are flying, where the ski tracks are," Carey said. "They do this in broad daylight … this does not need to be withheld from the public."

Assemblyman Steve Vick said he was open to changing his vote at an upcoming hearing.

"I can see how it could be a trade secret in the sense that you don’t want your competitors knowing where you’re going if you found a good, fresh patch of snow that you’re taking clients to, but I think government agencies that are doing studies, I don’t think those people are in danger of releasing any trade secret information," Vick said.

Sundberg of SEABA in April wrote that he opposed Fish and Game acquiring the GPS data at that time, due to concerns it might generate "premature red flags and incomplete conclusions that could work against the industry."

"We feel that it will just become a heel in the efforts to create a positive operating environment, and we cannot be assured that (Fish and Game) will be able to contain this info as well," he said.

Assembly member Schnabel said she views the heli-skiing "issue of proprietary public lands" as "akin to the fishing industry."

"The state permits fishermen, the state tells you where you can fish, but where you put your net in the water is not proprietary," Schnabel said.

Waterman said fishermen would have a strong reaction to GPS tracking made public.

"If, perchance, the state of Alaska required the fishermen to have GPS and provide points of stopping their boat to make sure they weren’t over boundaries, and they had to submit that information, I can guarantee you that those fishermen would believe that that is proprietary information," she said.