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


Assembly leans to spot check heli-ski GPS data


Mayor Stephanie Scott on Tuesday twice broke tie votes of the Haines Borough Assembly regarding global positioning system data for helicopter skiing, advancing amendments that would lead to spot checks for compliance that would be public information.

The assembly delayed a vote on adopting the amended ordinance until Tuesday, Feb. 28.

“What we’re really trying to do here, I think, is not publish or distribute information about what the operators are doing, but we want to be able to access the information for our own purposes, which is enforcement,” said member Debra Schnabel.

The ordinance as introduced would have made the GPS data confidential, unless the information was required in an official investigation or court proceeding. Heli-ski operators claimed the data are a “trade secret.”

“It’s taken years to map out the avalanche paths, it’s taken years to know where the crevasses are; you go up every year, the snow is completely different – one year a crevasse might be obvious, the next year it’s not,” said Nick Trimble of Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures (SEABA). “It specifically is why somebody requires a guide to ski up here with us.”

Assembly member Joanne Waterman suggested an amendment she said would focus on spot checks and following up on complaints, instead of requiring operators to submit their GPS data every other week, as is currently practice. Her amendment said GPS information “shall be cataloged in a manner requested by the borough and provided when requested by the borough during each commercial ski tour season.”

“I realize and respect that any information the borough receives is public and this language will fulfill that, but I agree with the industry that they have put a lot of research into these areas to provide a safe and responsible product,” Waterman wrote. “I think this arrangement satisfies the concerns of the industry that all of the flight data would be public information but it allows the borough to receive all information it needs to ensure enforcement of regulations.”

She said if operators fail to provide the requested data, borough manager Mark Earnest “has the power to use this action when assigning future allotments of skier days or granting a permit.”

Schnabel said agencies such as the Alaska Department of Fish and Game that want heli-skiing data could contact the companies directly.

She proposed an amendment that the borough’s grounds for requesting GPS data “are limited to enforcement of borough-permitted activity,” and Scott voted in favor to break the 3-3 tie.

“The operators at any given moment in time must be prepared to give the borough, upon request, information,” Schnabel said. “I could do it every day of the week, I could do it twice a day, I could do it once a month, I could never do it. In other words, we, then, are able to require that information to flow to us at our request.”

The second deadlocked vote that Scott advanced was over Waterman’s amendment. Assemblymen Daymond Hoffman, Norm Smith and Steve Vick were opposed both times.

Seven residents spoke at the second public hearing for the ordinance on Tuesday, prior to assembly discussion, with four speaking against confidentiality, two in favor, and Pam Randles voicing support for Waterman’s amendment.

“Perhaps the issue isn’t the heli-ski companies as much as it is the borough enforcing what their ordinances are, and the amendment addresses a lot of that,” Randles said.