February 23, 2012 | Vol. 42 No. 7

Assembly moves to make GPS data public for ‘spot checks’

Under a proposed ordinance up for adoption Tuesday, global positioning system data for helicopter skiing submitted to the Haines Borough is public information, but it’s unclear how often that information would be collected.

The assembly last week amended the ordinance that would have made the data confidential, unless required in an official investigation or court proceeding. Members were deadlocked in a 3-3 vote that scratched confidentiality and the current requirement for bi-weekly submission of GPS data.

Mayor Stephanie Scott broke the tie, and the ordinance added wording that the information will be provided “when requested by the borough during each commercial ski tour season.” A stipulation for borough manager Mark Earnest to publish a monthly report to list operators that were delinquent in submission or violated boundaries and flight paths also was removed.

The change would lead to spot checks for compliance that could occur “at any time,” said member Debra Schnabel.

Nick Trimble of Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures (SEABA) spoke of a similar arrangement at a recent assembly meeting, referring to the Chugach National Forest and Chugach Powder Guides. He said spot checks are a few times a season, but those results are confidential. The information is summarized in a season-ending report.

Mayor Scott then explained the “untested” arrangement for Alaska Powder Descents in Juneau.

“The GPS data is submitted, and then anybody can request that data through a freedom of information action,” she said. “When they do that, Alaska Descents has the opportunity of arguing at that point in time for the data to be held confidential.”

The company’s request would go to a committee, Scott said, but the process has never reached that point.

According to Jim Fincher, field manager for the Anchorage Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management, GPS data is a trade secret. He said heli-skiing on BLM land in the Haines area is on hold due to a National Environmental Policy Act analysis, and GPS collection is being considered.

“I think it’s correct to say that we would follow the lead of the forest service that it does make sense that that information should be proprietary,” Fincher said. “Our interest is to make sure that they’re avoiding the areas that are of concern to us, and there’s a way that they can get that information to us without losing the protection that they need to make their business competitive with other companies.”

He said BLM monitoring of heli-skiing focuses on environmental impacts.

“As a multiple-use agency, we want to provide opportunities where we can, we want to support small businesses where we can, while balancing that with the impacts that could have on other resources, such as wildlife,” Fincher said. “If we can do that, then we’re doing our job.”

The majority of testimony at assembly meetings has supported public GPS data for heli-skiing.

“It’s not a secret where these companies go, and in order to keep it secret, the borough would have to establish a gag order on employees of the companies – past, present and future – private and commercial pilots who fly in the areas, and anyone who has flown in that area over the last seven or eight years,” said resident Eric Holle.

Paul Butler of North Cascade Heli in Washington said he understands operating on public land attracts more scrutiny. Butler is president of the Heli Ski US Association that draws membership from Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

“I think most operators would take the use of public land seriously, and they want to act in accordance with whatever rules and regulations are there, but there are certain competitive reasons why that information shouldn’t necessarily just be shared openly with anybody,” he said.

Butler said he is “loosely following” the GPS issue, and said the close proximity of operators in Haines – SEABA, Alaska Heliskiing and Alaska Mountain Guides – complicates the matter for the borough.

Oversight of the industry should be the responsibility of land-use managers, “just like any other government agency,” Butler said.

“The public needs to trust them in doing that, and maybe that’s part of the issue,” he said.