August 16, 2012 | Volume 42, No. 33

Heli-ski review set for Tuesday

The Haines Borough Assembly will meet as a committee Tuesday to review the past heli-skiing season and consider a host of regulatory changes. The meeting starts 5:30 p.m. at the assembly chambers.

Critics of the industry say global positioning technology has confirmed that flights operated out of prescribed boundaries on several occasions during the past season and say the actual number of violations are likely higher and continual, as recent confirmations correspond only with sightings.

“The industry has denied for years they don’t play by the rules. It’s now clear from the GPS data – that took us a dozen years to get – they don’t play by the rules,” resident Eric Holle told the assembly July 10.

The GPS data confirms photos he took of skiers a mile out of bounds but mysteriously doesn’t jibe with sightings on Rainbow Glacier, he said.

Besides closing loopholes in GPS tracking, the borough needs to create meaningful, punitive measures to ensure compliance with its regulations, Holle said, including suspending permits for full days, mid-season.

To date, the industry has been rewarded with a doubling of skier areas and a sixfold increase in skier days since its inception, he said.

Heli-ski company operator Scott Sundberg said many issues raised recently are due to a heli-ski boundary map that doesn’t jibe with the boundaries of allowed skiing. “We’re in there a lot, but the map should show we’re (allowed) in there…The final map adjustment has been lingering for two years.”

Sundberg disgreed with Holle’s characterization that companies flout regulations. “We’re trying to comply the best we can with what the borough has put out there.”

At the July meeting, Mayor Stephanie Scott asked borough manager Mark Earnest what some of his recommendations would be.

Earnest said a problem is that one company uses a hand-held GPS device to record its activity. That information is subject to interpretation, he said. “You’ve just got a bunch of dots and we don’t know if that translates to a landing, pickup or a drop-off… One recommendation is that we require … helicopter companies to provide that data directly. That would ensure that we have complete information.”

The format for data submission also must be standardized, he said.

The heli-ski map also needs revisiting, he said. “Perhaps the final map didn’t accurately incorporate the recommended adjustments in a couple areas and particularly where it applies to lines that were essentially a truncated a natural ski run that did not empty into a controversial area restricted because of other users groups activities or wildlife.”

Earnest said “it doesn’t make sense if you have a ski run and you have a pickup point halfway down the run,” particularly considering the steep grades of slopes. “If it’s a non-controversial area, (the map) should reflect that.”

He said he might also recommend a heli-ski permit fee of $5 or $10 per skier day that would compensate the borough for administering regulations and enforcement. Such fees are typical for agencies that regulate recreation, he said.

Asked by Mayor Scott about proposed penalties, Earnest said he was in the process of analyzing heli-ski company responses to alleged violations. “That’s something I’d like to bring back is some guidance on violations. We’ll have some recommendations based on the results of this.”

Earnest said he also was investigating conflicts between state and borough regulations about where heli-skiing is allowed.

Scott said she wanted regulatory questions resolved before the start of the season.

“My goal is to not utter the word heli-ski after Oct. 31 and let them have their season,” Scott said.