July 18, 2013 | Volume 43, Number 28

Mayor pushes monitoring, tougher fines on heli-skiing

Haines Borough Mayor Stephanie Scott is proposing the borough ramp up its monitoring of heli-ski tour companies and stiffen fines.

Scott will ask the assembly Tuesday to change the borough’s GPS data collection policies and adopt a graduated fine schedule for violations. Under the change, each operator would be subject to a minimum of 10 GPS spot checks per season, with each out-of-bounds result triggering an additional 10 spot checks.

The fine schedule would level a $200 fine for the first violation, $500 for the second and $1,000 for the third. A fourth violation may lead to forfeiture of future permits.

“We’re not being draconian here. We just want there to be no violations, and sometimes if you increase the consequences for a violation and if you check more frequently, it helps people adhere to the rules. It’s an incentive to adhere to the boundaries,” Scott said.

Under current policy, the number of GPS spot checks and fine amounts are at the discretion of manager Mark Earnest. Earnest mandated two GPS checks per operator last season, and ordered Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures (SEABA) to pay $400 for two out-of-bounds landings.

If Scott’s proposals are accepted and passed by the assembly, Earnest will be taken out of the equation. “It sort of eliminates that element,” Scott said.

“There seems to be a sense that violating the boundaries is inconsequential. I have been informed (by a helicopter pilot) that it’s easy to see where the boundaries are and that violations are not necessary. They’re not accidental,” she added.

Earnest said in an interview Monday it’s not as simple as gathering GPS data and handing out fines, as the data isn’t foolproof evidence of a violation. “There are arguments that someone can make about, ‘Well, what do those cluster of dots truly represent? Do they represent a landing? Do they represent hovering? When you look at it, it looks like a duck, it quacks like a duck, but is it a duck?’”

For the four GPS checks conducted last season (two per operator), Takshanuk Watershed Council, which performs the mapping, charged the borough $517.50.

A key point that these changes will need to stress to the company, Earnest said, is that violations are not in anybody’s best interest.

“It is what it is, and you’ve got to learn to operate within the parameters or the rules, or there’s going to be a continuing issue there that’s not serving anyone. It’s taking time out of our operations; we’re not addressing other issues when we’re addressing violations. It’s not something that I like to see,” Earnest said.  

Scott will also propose alterations to the ordinance passed last fall dictating how adjustments to the borough’s heli-ski map are made. Scott will ask for that process to not automatically occur each year, but for the assembly to choose whether to open the map for discussion.

Proposals for changes to the heli-ski map should also not be limited to 500 words and residents should be encouraged to submit attachments providing evidence supporting the changes called for in their proposals, Scott said.

An ordinance outlining the changes will be introduced at Tuesday’s assembly meeting, Scott said.