December 20, 2012 | Volume 42, No. 51

BLM issues 'Ring of Fire' draft plan

More than 300,000 acres of currently off-limits mountain terrain near Haines would reopen to heli-ski use under a recent Bureau of Land Management plan.

The BLM released its Ring of Fire Draft Resource Management Plan Haines Planning Area Amendment and Draft Environmental Impact Statement last week, which is used to determine land use designations, management practices, and the amount of annual helicopter landings allowed in the area.

The document outlines four options, including the BLM’s preferred option, which would reopen the 320,000 acres composed primarily of two land blocks. The south block is located southwest of Haines along the boundary of Glacier Bay National Park. The north block is located northwest of Skagway along the United States/Canadian border.

Haines Borough officials and local heli-ski operators have expressed support for BLM’s preferred option and have cited numerous benefits, including dispersing the number of skiers over a wider area and decreasing environmental impact.

“You open up more area for heli-skiers, which hopefully, or in theory, would reduce the density pressures. With more area to ski with the same number of skier days, you disperse that operation and they can operate at higher elevations away from wildlife. I can’t think of a downside to having that area opened up for heli-skiing,” said borough manager Mark Earnest.

Jeff Kowalcyzk, BLM’s outdoor recreation planner, said the document is the culmination of three years of in-depth work and research. The area has been closed to winter helicopter landings because BLM decided to not issue new permits until the new environmental impact statement was authorized.

Scott Sundberg, owner of Haines-based Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures (SEABA), said he has been waiting for the BLM to release the document and begin the process of possibly reopening the area. SEABA started operating on the land in 2002, and continued to do so until their BLM permit expired in the late-2000s and was not renewed.

Suddenly more users were being squeezed into a smaller area, Sundberg said, meaning operators found it harder and harder to find untrammeled snow, the end-goal of many clients seeking the chance to ski in untouched Alaskan wilderness.

“We try to deliver what Alaska is known for, and that’s pristine, clean, Alaskan slopes without tracks in them,” Sundberg said.

In addition to happier clients, Sundberg said the BLM land is more remote than the state lands heli-ski companies currently operate on; therefore, helicopter sounds and sightings around town would theoretically decrease.

Sundberg was not the only one pushing for the BLM to release the document as soon as possible. Borough Mayor Stephanie Scott sent letters to U.S. Rep. Don Young, and U.S. Sens. Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski on Nov. 13 urging that the long-delayed document be released in time for the upcoming heli-ski season.

“If our helicopter operators cannot get their BLM access permits processed in time for this season due to the (document) delays, it will be very disruptive. Those skiers might well take their skis, boots and valuable visitation dollars elsewhere,” Scott wrote.

Assistant to the borough manager Darsie Culbeck also highlighted Haines’ economic interest in having the BLM lands reopened.

“The quality of the skiing will be better for the end user if they have more terrain to choose from. And so that helps our reputation out. If you came up here and had the greatest time ever, you’d be telling all your friends how awesome it was, and then they would come spend money here,” Culbeck said.

Because the public comment period, which started Dec. 14, lasts 90 days and goes through another 30-day comment period after any reviews or changes are made, any final decision by BLM would not happen in time to affect the upcoming 2013 heli-ski season, said BLM’s Anchorage district planning and environmental coordinator Molly Cobb.

Aside from the BLM-preferred option, there are three other alternatives BLM could ultimately choose to implement, including a “no action” option which would leave things as they are. The other two options either strongly favor resource development or resource conservation.

The BLM-preferred option would retain an off-limits 98,000-acre area for five years to provide a control area for ongoing mountain goat studies conducted jointly by the BLM and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The option also would set annual helicopter landings, for both winter and summer, at 6,000, about half of which would be devoted to winter heli-skiing, Kowalcyzk said.

Sundberg said the reopening of BLM land under the stipulations of the preferred alternative is very important to the longevity of the heli-skiing industry in Haines. “It’s going to meet a lot of our needs but probably not all of them. But it’s going to be a lot better than it has been the last two-and-a-half years,” he said.

Public comment on the document is open until March 14. The document is available on BLM’s website.