Two local heli-ski companies are asking the Haines Borough to temporarily open nearly 10,000 acres of terrain closed to the sport for a month-long special event.

The “Make it Live!” photography competition proposed by Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures and Alaska Heliskiing would be open to all heli-ski clients in Haines between March 21 and April 21.

SEABA co-owner Scott Sundberg said temporarily opening new areas for skiing would draw more clients to Haines and “save the season” after a “dramatic loss of snowpack in January” and “horrible exposure” in the press about poor snow conditions in Alaska.

Due to the lack of snowfall, the currently available areas are also less safe, said Alaska Heliskiing co-owner Sean Brownell. “This condition has resulted in overcrowding of the backcountry and created a competitive atmosphere for the available terrain that is left, and that in itself has eroded the quality and safety of the heli-skiing experience in Haines,” Brownell said.

“The answer is right before our eyes across an imaginary line of denial and has been a source of sadness and frustration for all of us in the industry for many years,” he added.

Interim manager Julie Cozzi has recommended that the assembly consider opening some of the areas the companies asked for.

“I believe this event is worth a try given the overall lack of snow and as a way to attract heli-skiing clients back to Haines this year,” Cozzi said.

Cozzi recommended the assembly open 4,000 acres of land, with about 1,800 of those acres in the Chilkat Inlet-facing Haska Creek and Pyramid Harbor areas. The other 2,200 acres is near Mosquito Lake Road, east of Four Winds Mountain.

“Skiing in the temporary areas outside of the event dates would be considered a violation subject to fines and suspension or revocation of permits. We would watch this closely,” Cozzi said.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game submitted a letter to the assembly Tuesday urging the borough keep closed all of the areas requested for opening. The department cited sensitive goat populations, particularly during the proposed month-long period when female goats are in late-term pregnancy and particularly vulnerable to stress.

The Upper Lynn Canal Fish and Game Advisory Board also voted 6-1 Tuesday to back the department’s recommendation. Board member Dean Risley was opposed, stating he believed the companies’ livelihoods are on the line due to low snowfall this season.

“They’re looking for a bone, plain and simple. That’s all there is to it,” Risley said. “They’re just looking for options. Just because you have them doesn’t mean you’re going to go all willy-nilly.”

Lynn Canal Conservation member and recreational backcountry user Eric Holle said the companies are trying to exploit a loophole in code that allows possible opening of closed areas for special events.

“It’s allegedly because of the weather that they need to do this 30-day photography contest, but any outdoor business from commercial fishing to mountain guiding is dependent on the whims of the weather, and it doesn’t mean that you can just dodge borough regulations,” Holle said.

The areas near Haska Creek and Pyramid Harbor were closed “primarily because of residential noise concerns,” Holle said. Disturbance of mountain goat and brown bear populations is also an issue, he said.

Holle also took issue with Alaska Heliskiing co-owner Ryan Johnson’s suggestion that the photography competition could become an annual event.

“An annual month-long special event is an oxymoron. It’s simply a different way to phrase giving them more area off the map,” Holle said.

Resident Thom Ely, who lives on River Road across from the Haska Creek area that could potentially open, said the industry is trying to circumvent code by classifying a photo contest as a “special ski competition event.”

In an email to Cozzi, Ely urged the interim manager to reconsider her recommendation and interpretation of code. “The clause was certainly not intended to circumvent the map and planning process that has been ongoing for 14 years. Your decision to allow a broad interpretation goes against the public process and spirit of compromise that is critical in our small town,” Ely said.

The poor snow conditions and weather also aren’t the assembly’s problem, Ely said. “The industry refuses to abide by regulations, boundaries, and recent assembly votes and keeps perpetuating the angst and negativity. We all live here. No one gets everything they want in life, but these guys don’t seem to understand that. Our government does not help by enabling this behavior.”

Sundberg said offering up “new product” to potential clients will show that Haines is open for business and wants to bring winter tourists here, thus benefiting the overall economy of the town.

  “You’re saying, ‘We understand how important our winter industry is to our community, and we are willing to give incentives to help it out, as well as give the clients – the true bread winners of the winter economy – something in return,” Sundberg said.

The contest would be judged by SEABA and Alaska Heliskiing representatives as well as a sponsor like Powder or Ski magazine, with prizes including gear and free heli-ski trips.

The Commerce Committee will meet at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday to discuss the special event request. The assembly will also take up the issue at its 6:30 p.m. meeting the same day.