'Ring of Fire' plan delayed for 2 years
A decision by the Bureau of Land Management on whether to open about 320,000 acres of mountain terrain near Haines currently off-limits to commercial heli-ski tours has been delayed at least another two years.
The BLM issued a statement earlier this month saying new information obtained by the agency regarding goat populations and their cultural importance to local tribes has delayed a final decision on the Ring of Fire Resource Management Plan Haines Planning Area Amendment and Environmental Impact Statement.
A final decision on the document was expected in early 2014. The 320,000 acres has been closed to heli-skiing for roughly four years.
Field manager Alan Bittner said the BLM is developing another option that would identify and establish a mountain goat Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) for the planning area.
The decision to develop the additional option containing an ACEC will likely delay a final decision by another two years, Bittner said.
“We have to properly analyze all of the information in front of us, meaning the scientific and cultural concerns, and this really wasn’t done in this document,” Bittner said of the BLM’s draft amendment released in December 2012, which identified four options for use of the land outlining various degrees of conservation.
The agency’s preferred alternative, in addition to opening several hundred thousand acres of land to heli-skiing, also proposed the establishment of 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.
However, the first draft of the document didn’t analyze the situation from “A to Z,” Bittner said. “We analyzed something from A to Q, and there’s enough evidence culturally and scientifically that we should have analyzed for an ACEC for some level of designation or protection.”
According to Jeff Kowalczyk, BLM’s outdoor recreation planner for the Anchorage office, the agency received about 35 public comments on the draft amendment. Comments concerned recent research findings about the uniqueness of the local goat population, adequacy/inadequacy of flight buffers, wolverine and bear impact considerations, helicopter use effect on goats, and considerations given to establishing an ACEC given recent goat research.
In March 2013, Bittner said he met with the Chilkat Indian Village to discuss the draft amendment. At the meeting, tribe representatives expressed concern that reopening the land to heli-skiing could endanger the goats that are integral to their culture.
“We got more engagement from the tribes down there around Haines when we came out with the draft. It’s pretty clear that this is part of their history and their culture,” Bittner said.
After hearing the Ring of Fire decision had been delayed, Mayor Stephanie Scott and executive assistant to the manager Darsie Culbeck contacted Bittner to express their dismay at the decision, which Scott characterized as a surprise.
Local heli-ski operators have been awaiting a decision since about 2009, when Bittner’s predecessor Jim Fincher decided the BLM wouldn’t issue any more permits for heli-skiing on the land until the final document was released.
Planning and zoning technician Tracy Cui said of the roughly 234,000 acres of approved heli-ski operating area on the borough map, 42 percent of it is not available because it is BLM land.
“Basically what really is happening is the operators don’t have access to the land that they had when they developed their business plan, so we would really like some kind of decision to be made,” Scott said.
Scott, assembly member Schnabel, and Culbeck met in Klukwan with tribal council president Jones Hotch, tribal council secretary Brian Willard and consultant John Brower this week to discuss the Ring of Fire document, among other issues.
Hotch declined to comment on the meeting or the Ring of Fire document.
“The tribe really has a lot of influence on the performance or the decision that the federal government makes. I think they have decided to exercise their influence on behalf of their traditional values,” Scott said.
The BLM’s decision to withhold permits for heli-ski use on the land is not a rule as much as an informal policy decision, Bittner said. Former field manager Fincher made a decision to hold off on issuing the permits, and Bittner said at this point he is sticking to his predecessor’s decision.
“I could permit activity in there. I’m not going to do it this winter, but we could permit some level of activity in there,” Bittner said.
When Scott found out the policy was flexible, she asked Bittner to make a decision on whether to issue the permits within 30 days. Bittner refused.
On Tuesday, the assembly voted unanimously to send a letter to Bittner and the borough’s Washington lobbyist calling for the permits to be processed and issued.
Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures co-owner Scott Sundberg said in an interview Wednesday he was disappointed with the two-year delay, as it keeps nearly half of the heli-ski industry’s potential operating terrain locked up.