Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966

Groups seek delay in heli-skiing decisions


Hold off until mountain goat and bear preliminary studies are finished next spring. Tighter conflict-of-interest rules.

That’s what two local advisory groups say is needed in dealing with expanding the areas available for heliskiing in the Haines Borough. Both recommendations are going to the assembly.

On Wednesday, the Upper Lynn Canal Fish and Game Advisory Committee requested the borough government delay expanding heliskiing zones until next spring when the state’s biologists finish preliminary calculations on bear and mountain goat locations near Haines and Skagway.

Right now, the borough’s heliskiing review committee is supposed to make its recommendations by Nov. 30 to borough manager Bill Seward. Seward is supposed to send his recommendations to the borough assembly in December.

The fish and game advisory committee’s letter voiced worries about heliskiing trips crossing paths with bears, goats and wolverines in the 14 parcels where expanded heliskiing has been proposed. “It will be unclear what the impacts (of the new zones) will be,” the letter said.

“There are quite a few (of the 14 parcels) where we have concerns,” said Carl Koch, a wildlife biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish adn Game.

He noted that one proposed new heliskiing area – dubbed “S4” along the Kicking Horse River – is about 50 meters from where a bear severely mauled a University of Alaska Southeast professor last spring.

Koch said solid calculations on bear and mountain goat locations should be ready by next spring. That information would be incomplete if the assembly tackles the matter in December.

“If we have to make comments (in the next few weeks), we’ll make the comments to the best of our abilities,” Koch said.

Meanwhile, the Haines Tourism Advisory Board recommended tightening conflict-of-interest rules before the borough appoints a new heliskiing review committee.

The recommendation goes to the borough assembly, and is a result of two heliskiing company co-owners being on the five-person committee that is reviewing the two’s own requests to increase areas for heliskiing.

The Tourism Advisory Board recommendation calls for the conservation and heliskiing representatives on future committees to be non-voting advisory members.

And the recommendation would forbid heliskiing company owners and employees plus board members and paid staff of conservation groups from becoming voting members of future heliskiing review committees. However, non-board and non-staff members of conservation groups would be eligible for future heliskiing committees.

The recommendation would keep the voting members at five, but would expand the interests that would be represented. For example, tourism board members speculated one representative could come from the borough’s parks and recreation committee.

In a twist, two of the tourism board members in the 4-0 vote on the recommendation are co-owners of heliskiing companies.

Tourism board member Sean Gaffney is a co-owner of Alaska Mountain Guides. And board member Scott Sundberg is a co-owner of Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures.

The current committee consists of one assembly member, one conservation representative, one heliskiing representative and two general public members. Sean Brownell, co-owner of Alaska Heliskiing, is the heliskiing industry representative. A random choice selection picked Sundberg as one of the two public representatives.

This committee is scheduled to dissolve on Nov. 30. The next heliskiing committee will be picked in 2019, which is when the next requests for changes in heliskiing areas will be legally allowed.

Eric Holle, president of Lynn Canal Conservation, challenged the appropriateness of the tourism board making the recommendations, noting its purpose is to promote tourism, which includes heliskiing.

He cited the borough’s code that forbids borough assembly and committee members with a “significant financial interest” in an issue from voting on that matter. He pointed to Gaffney’s and Sundberg’s presence on the tourism board.

“This is not to cast aspersions on the integrity of anyone on the Tourism Advisory Board,” Holle said.

Sundberg countered: “Financial gain in the conservation world could mean closing large tracts of land. I see a conflict. We need to stop the conflict by having both (heliskiing and conservation interests solely) in advisory roles.”

Gaffney said the borough assembly told the tourism board to return recommendations to it, and the board needs to complete that task.

On Oct. 26, the borough’s attorney Patrick Munson of Anchorage wrote a memo to the heliskiing committee to address the fact that Brownell and Sundberg are on the same advisory committee that will make recommendations on their requests.

Munson said there is an appearance of a conflict of interest in the situation, but borough code allows the situation.

Munson recommended that at-large representative Sundberg recuse himself from voting on his own requests. Sundberg is doing that.

Meanwhile, Brownell represents the heliskiing industry as a whole, and is expected to advocate pro-heliskiing stances on the committee, Munson wrote. Therefore, Brownell can vote on his and Sundberg’s requests, he wrote.

By 5-0 and 4-0 votes on Nov. 7, the committee recommended expanding seven areas – four requests by Alaska Heliskiing and three by SEABA. The committee trimmed the sizes of almost all proposed new areas after discussions. The committee will look at the remaining four SEABA and remaining three Alaska Heliskiing requests on Monday.

In a related matter, assembly member Tom Morphet said he plans to soon introduce legislation to prevent future heliskiing review committees after this year, arguing they are unnecessarily duplicative.


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