The Haines Chamber of Commerce Saturday gave its “Business of the Year” award to heli-ski firm Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures, a company that’s been battling more than a year with critics and the Haines Borough over imposed limits on its operations. 

The award is one of four presented annually by the business group, and the only one exclusive to members. Only about 20 of the group’s 146 members cast ballots and SEABA won the balloting by a margin of two votes.

The decision came as a jolt to some chamber members and businesses, but chamber leaders said it was warranted.

In announcing the award, Chamber board member Greg Schlachter said clothier Eddie Bauer was running a full line of clothing around SEABA and running videos of SEABA‘s operation and Haines around the clock in their stores down south.

“They bring an unquantified number of indirect dollars to local businesses at a much-needed time of year and increase the quality of life for most residents. Hopefully,  this award demonstrates the chamber’s appreciation and full support for the local heli-ski industry,” Schlachter said.

Chamber president Karl Heinz said Tuesday the group has received positive and negative comments on its decision.

“We put it out there for the members to vote on. You heard who the nominees were and (SEABA) was voted as winner. No body had any problem supporting the vote at all,” Heinz said.

The Chamber changed election procedures this year, in part to increase participation in the vote. Nominees were determined by members of the group’s board of directors instead of by polling general membership, as in past years. Also, voting this year was by e-mail or through the chamber’s website only.

Other nominees for “Business of the Year” award were Haines Assisted Living and Alaska Sport Shop.

Board members include Heinz, Schlachter, Evangeline Willard Hoy, Jan Hill, Adam Patterson, Joyce Town, Patty Campbell, Judith McDermaid and Nick Trimble. Trimble is a partner in SEABA, but did not nominate his own company, Chamber manager Joan Carlson said this week.

Tour guide and bike shop owner Thom Ely, a 20-year member of the group who has been critical of SEABA, called the award a “publicity stunt that emboldens SEABA to be more in our face about it.”

“I find it rather ridiculous that a business can get an award when they’ve been out of compliance with borough ordinances and regulations.” Ely said he didn’t receive a ballot on the vote. “I’m not sure who voted, but I didn’t get a chance.”

“The Chamber needs to sit down and decide where we’re going on economic development in general and on heli-skiing in particular. There needs to be more of a cooperative approach rather than the us-versus-them tactics that seem to dominate this issue.”

Ely said he’d be speaking with chamber officials. “I want equal representation. The Chamber needs to be not just for conservative Republican businessmen. Haines is made up of diverse groups of people and we need to learn to talk together and compromise and get along.”

“People voted for management of this industry, which means limiting the number of helicopters and limiting the number of skiers. (SEABA’s competitor) Alaska Heli-Skiing doesn’t seem to have a problem with the regulations. There’s only one company that has a problem.” Alaska Heli- Skiing is not a Chamber member and thus wasn’t eligible for the award.

Paul Swanstrom, who operates an air charter and flightseeing business, called the choice of SEABA “insane.”

The company has a history of breaking rules governing heli-skiing and company owner Scott Sundberg has deliberately provoked backcountry users who’ve asked him to accommodate their use, Swanstrom said.

“Fishermen don’t go out before noon on Sunday just because they need money and there’s fish out on the water. There’s regulations we all have to follow,” Swanstrom said.

“If it’s a joke, it’s a bad joke,” he said, citing other businesses he said were more deserving.

Swanstrom said he opposes the borough issuing a new business license to SEABA. He said he has been a chamber member before, but he’s no longer interested in the group. “If I’m current, give me my money back. If I’m not, I’m not going back for a while.”

Chamber president Heinz said the group had an unwritten position of support for heli-skiing. At a borough meeting involving SEABA two months ago, Heinz gave a statement of general support for the industry. Chamber board member Campbell spoke for the group at a similar meeting more recently, voicing opposition to current heli-ski regulations.

Heinz said both statements reflected the group’s position. “Our general position is going to be, we support the industry and we oppose things that aren’t going to let the industry strive and grow.”

The Chamber’s positions on political issues are developed by its board and are based on the group’s mission statement, he said. “We handle issues on a caseby- case basis as they’re brought to the board. We get requests from our membership to support different issues and that’s when we consider them.”

The group doesn’t support individual members on issues. “We don’t support individual members on issues. We support the industry. Statements we make aren’t for a particular business.”

Heinz said the low participation in the election wasn’ t disproportionate to low turnouts in other elections. “We tried to make it easier this year by sending ballots electronically. It’s an improvement, but we’d like to see more people voting, for sure.”

Chamber manager Carlson said the 20 ballots returned in the election this year was a “tremendous improvement” over what came back in previous years. Winners of other Chamber awards were: Sandra Martin of Helen’s Shop, lifetime achievement award; Air Excursions, customer service award; Haines Packing Co., Rising Star Award, and Haines Uglies, community service award.