Manager: Expand heli-ski map
Haines Borough administration recommendations on changes to heli-skiing management came under fire by critics of the industry during an assembly committee meeting Tuesday.
Mayor Stephanie Scott said the purpose of the meeting was to get “a sense of assembly direction” before bringing the recommendations back for statute considerations by Sept. 11.
Rob Goldberg reacted indignantly to a recommendation to expand four permitted areas on a map approved by the borough in spring 2011. The areas are at the Jarvis Glacier and the upper Tsirku valley, Haska Creek and “Rainbow Glacier Peaks.”
Goldberg, who chaired a committee appointed by former Mayor Jan Hill that revised the heli-ski map and expanded skier days to 2,600 per season last fall, called proposed map changes a “slap in the face” and “travesty.”
He characterized the proposed new ski areas – including two that now shield Chilkat Inlet from helicopter operations – as a paltry concession by the industry at a time when the borough was more than doubling skier days.
“I told the (operators) the residents have to have something… To just include these areas again would make all the work we did on an area map a waste of time,” Goldberg said.
Borough manager Mark Earnest, however, said the map was never intended to be cast in stone. “It was meant to be revised, based on reasonable requests.”
Operators and borough staff said at several of the disputed map locations, existing boundaries cut off a slope halfway down to the bottom, where helicopters can’t land, making a full run of the slope illegal. Industry critic Eric Holle said such lines were intentional and meant to protect wildlife at lower elevations.
Also Tuesday, the administration proposed to fine operators $200 each for violations confirmed by GPS monitoring in the past season and to establish a $10 per skier day fee to help offset costs of managing the industry. Costs were estimated at $28,000.
Earnest said based on GPS information, five boundary violations were confirmed during the past season, three by Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures (SEABA) and two by Alaska Heliskiing. Earnest said a penalty of more than $300 would require court action under state law and likely wouldn’t be cost-effective for the borough.
Holle, however, said $300 wouldn’t be a deterrent and noted the proposed map changes would make legal some of the past season’s violations. “Every time these guys are in violation of something, they come out ahead. They either get more skier days or more territory,” he said after the meeting adjourned.
Holle told the assembly to penalize companies by revoking skier days. He also called for spot checks on the industry, noting that recent violations came from eyewitness accounts.
Operators and assembly member Daymond Hoffman questioned the proposed fee. Hoffman said it would be a lot to ask of operators at the beginning of the season. SEABA co-owner Nick Trimble said his company had no problem paying a fee but said a fee of $2 or $3 would be more in the range of those in place nationally.
(Trimble also said that map lines didn’t recognize variable weather that forces changes in operations for safety, such as when cornices collapse at pickup zones.)
Operator Sean Gaffney of Alaska Mountain Guides said the industry, at capacity, could be paying up to $75,000 in sales tax. “There’s a financial basis already in place to pay for the (borough) management,” he said.
Assembly member Debra Schnabel said she questioned such an estimate as the borough didn’t have a uniform reporting of how operators report their sales.
The $10 fee would raise $24,000 and cover all but about $4,000 of management costs, said Earnest. The $28,000 cost raised questions at the meeting, as Earnest initially said the bulk of it was for tracking, mapping and analyzing flight paths.
However, after Brad Ryan of the watershed council reported his group’s cost at around $1,500, Earnest said most of the borough’s cost was attorney’s fees and time spent on the issue by him and the borough clerk.
Earnest said Tuesday’s public comments would be taken into consideration when he makes final recommendations.