Assembly grows heli-ski terrain


December 14, 2017

In a convoluted stray from procedure and with prodding from the borough manager Tuesday, the Haines Borough Assembly expanded heli-ski map terrain after letting the resolution fail without discussion during its public hearing.

Assembly member Brenda Josephson made a motion to adopt manager Debra Schnabel’s recommendations, which included approving 10 of the 15 proposals. No one seconded the motion and the resolution failed without any assembly discussion. After that action, Fish and Game biologists who attended the meeting by teleconference hung up and other individuals, who spoke during the public hearing, left.

When it came time for assembly comments at the end of the meeting, Schnabel told the assembly they owed stakeholders an explanation.

“There should be some comment, it seems to me, to explain to the public and to the industry who has followed the process for over a year and done it exactly as it’s written in code,” Schnabel said. “To have it disappear into the ether, there just needs to be an explanation.”

Assembly member Tom Morphet said he wanted to accept two proposals but didn’t fight for them when the rest of the assembly didn’t appear to support any of them.

“I think what handcuffed us, and I apologize to the people of the audience, was that the recommendation from the manager was pretty far off from where the assembly wanted to go so we didn’t back that. But I apologize for not having jumped in and say ‘OK let’s go with something we can live with.’”

Morphet moved to approve two terrain proposals, one north of Rainbow Glacier and the other near Flower Mountain.

The assembly then discussed recent Fish and Game data, the results of a decade-long study, that overlaid probable mountain goat and bear habitat over current and proposed heli-ski terrain. Fish and Game comments said expanding heli-ski terrain into all 15 areas would have negative effects on wildlife populations, but the agency cited high concern with 11 of the proposals.

Fish and Game labeled the area near Rainbow Glacier area as especially concerning. Its study showed 57 percent of the area was probable mountain goat and brown bear habitat.

Morphet said he wanted to add the area because Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures owner Scott Sundberg said the expansion would be safer for guests, and that both proposals added very little terrain and just extended ski runs.

Assembly member Sean Maidy wanted to consult Fish and Game on the issue, but members discovered the biologists had hung up.

Josephson proposed an amendment to include two additional heli-ski terrain areas Fish and Game had cited less concern with, and the joint heli-ski map committee approved.

Maidy questioned the new direction of the conversation.

“We just went from nobody wanting to second anything because of the science, to adding some, to adding more,” Maidy said. “I just want the assembly to know the trajectory we are taking in just kind of completely overturning the original decision.”

The assembly voted 4-2 against Josephson’s amendment.

Assembly member Heather Lende said she wouldn’t approve an area Fish and Game cited high concern with, especially since they waited so long for its data.

“Now we’re going to make a decision based on commercial interests that I’m not convinced are necessary, but rather part of a process where every three years you can open up the map, so of course you do, and you ask for more and hope you get it,” Lende said.

The assembly eventually voted 3-3 on adding the two areas in Morphet’s motion. Jan Hill broke the tie in favor of adding the two proposed terrain areas.

Lynn Canal Conservation Executive Director Eric Holle spoke during the public hearing, but left after the assembly didn’t initially approve any of the amendments.

He said Fish and Game and the heli-ski industry should collaborate to make heli-ski map decisions by swapping acres.

“The reason is the borough does not have a staff biologist,” Holle said. “The borough does not have the expertise to evaluate proposals from the industry as to whether they actually need a new area for safety or some other reason or if it’s just an area they want.”

In a separate interview Holle said he’d like to see the assembly reconsider its vote.

Several residents spoke or wrote to the assembly in opposition to approving any new areas. Others, including, director of tourism Carolann Wooton, wrote in support of the proposals.

In a letter to the assembly, Wooton cited the positive economic impact the heli-ski industry provides to the borough and said the industry has the greatest potential for future growth.

No member of the heli-ski industry attended Tuesday’s meeting. Company owner Scott Sundberg was unavailable for comment.


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