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

Parks and Rec panel discusses heliskiing


The other recreationists who populate the backcountry of Haines weighed in Monday on the controversial remapping of heliski site maps where helicopters drop off and retrieve clients.

The Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee convened to hear public comment from hikers, cross-country skiers and others who might believe their outings would be compromised by the thump-thump of hovering choppers.

But since no one from the public showed up in person to testify in the tiny meeting at the public library, a committee member who also owns a Haines cycling shop did their talking for them.

Thom Ely, a local recreationist and owner of Sockeye Cycle, gave fellow committee members an earful on what he thought were the failings of the ongoing process to consider numerous expansions where Haines heliski companies can operate in the local backcountry.

His main concerns about possible conflicts were in areas around Pyramid Valley, Devil’s Elbow and Glacier Point, which are included in the expansion areas. In all the areas, he said, the helicopters are encroaching on the front range.

“As a recreationist, I’ve always asked that the lines be pushed back so the areas can be skied and hiked during the day,” Ely said. “I’m concerned about recreationists who want to park their car, hike or ski, and use the area without the fear of a helicopter or its noise.”

He added, “There’s so much terrain by Rainbow Glacier. Allowing them to drop farther into the Pyramid Valley isn’t a good idea.”

The borough’s heliskiing committee has already made its recommendations to Haines Borough Manager Bill Seward, who will then report to the borough assembly. The Parks and Recreation committee wanted to give local outdoor enthusiasts another chance to weigh in.

Using Google maps, the committee took close-up looks at some of the areas where new access maps have been requested by two local heliski companies: Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures and Alaska Heliskiing.

Speaking by telephone, committee member Burl Sheldon talked about helicopter-ground-skier confrontations in Valdez. “You don’t want people walking up the slope with helicopters and the skiers they deposit coming down on them,” he said.

Sheldon said he was also concerned helicopter racket would disturb hikers along Chilkat Inlet.

Committee member Lori Smith, who also sits on the borough’s heliskiing committee and has met face-to-face with heliski industry members, questioned whether reining in helicopters would deprive their clients of the area’s stunning mountain-water views that clients pay for.

She also stressed that the helicopter pilots needed safe landing areas to drop off and pick up passengers. Often, the map-redraw involved only a quarter of a mile. “If my kid were on that ski run, maybe that quarter of a mile would make a difference in picking them up safety,” she said.

But Ely would not give ground.

“The reason helicopters get so much scrutiny is that they can go anywhere,” Ely said. “It’s not about skiing; it’s about the noise caused by helicopters, the avalanches caused by helicopters.”

The committee also considered an email received from Eric Holle, president of Lynn Canal Conservation, who wrote that the Kicking Horse Valley was no longer popular with cross-country skiers. “This could be due to the fact that helicopters are buzzing all around there, or that no one wants SEABA kicking down an avalanche on top of them. But I’m not sure.”

Ely said the heliski industry had too much free reign in devising the suggested map expansions. “I know you spent a lot of time on these maps,” he said to Smith and borough assembly member Ron Jackson, who also sits on the heliski committee. “But they need more work.”

In recent months, complaints have surfaced that SEABA owner Scott Sundberg and Sean Brownell, owner of Alaska Heliskiing, were allowed to sit on the heliskiing committee that was making decisions on their own industry.

A lawyer consulted on the issue advised that Brownell could cast committee votes because he represented the entire heliskiing industry, but not Sundberg, who only represented himself.

“To me, these maps seem one-sided, a wish list for the heliskiing industry,” Ely said. “More and more people want to ski and they don’t want to get in a helicopter.”

He said making permanent map expansions could affect Haines tourism down the road.

The committee voted to send Seward a recommendation for long-term winter recreation planning, warning that “as we change a map to the liking of a motivated commercial enterprise, we are in fact foregoing the future recreational access of others.”


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