Another contentious meeting of the heliski map committee ended with a recommendation to the borough manager that members be allowed to continue committee work until Sept. 30, 2021.

This is not the first time the committee’s deadline has been extended.

Under borough code, the committee meets on a three-year cycle to consider potential changes to the heliski map. For the current cycle, proposed map amendments were due by May 15, 2019, at which point the manager had the option of establishing an advisory committee to review proposals. According to code, the committee is required to convene by June 15 and make a recommendation to the manager by Sept. 30.

In May 2019, the assembly, citing its authority to adjust the map amendment timeline to accommodate “for reasonable date or schedule conflicts,” passed a resolution postponing the start of committee work until the Bureau of Land Management finalized its Ring of Fire Resource Management Plan. This delayed committee work until the end of 2019.

At a heliski map committee meeting last week, outgoing assembly member Brenda Josephson advocated against continuing the committee’s work, urging other committee members to stick to the timeline in code.

“Once again, I want to remind you that we are a government that has laws. We’ve got to follow code,” Josephson said. “The information that is before us is the proposal we have. I’d like to make a motion that the heliski map committee take no action on this.”

Josephson said according to borough code, the map committee can only consider proposals submitted by the May 15 deadline. The only proposal submitted by that date was a proposal from Lynn Canal Conservation (LCC) to remove from the existing heliski map all winter goat habitat and brown bear denning habitat, as modeled by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, a proposal heliski operators have repeatedly described as “devastating.”

Josephson’s motion to recommend no change to the heliski map failed 2-3 with Josephson and industry representative Erin Bills from Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures (SEABA) in support. The three “no” votes were committee members Derek Poinsette, Thom Ely and Dan Shultz, who said they wanted more time to work out a compromise between industry operations and the desire to protect mountain goats, which have seen a roughly 50% population decline in some areas where the industry operates.

“I don’t want to disband this committee because, from what I understand, we may need to wait (three years) before we can do this again,” Poinsette said. “We have many parties here on this call that all want to get together and discuss this. To just call a vote and end the process would be irresponsible and we’d be squandering an opportunity.”

Other committee members blamed the heliski industry for stalling efforts to work out compromise amendments to the map.

“The committee requested track-log data, as much information as we could get. We have not gotten that information,” Ely said, adding that without the information, it’s impossible for the committee to refine LCC’s proposal to accommodate industry needs.

Ely made a motion to recommend approval of LCC’s proposed map changes “until we can meet as a committee with industry and get all the information, track logs on their runs, to make other changes to the map.”

Other committee members including Poinsette and Bills cautioned against attempting to strong-arm the industry into providing data.

“The industry is not going to be amenable to just completely shrinking the map and then have you guys expect us to want to work with you very much,” Bills said, adding that a change to the map so close to the start of the 2021 heliski season would be unfair to the industry.

Alaska Mountain Guides (AMG) owner Sean Gaffney, another permitted heliski operator, also objected to map changes, but gave slightly different reasons.

“I don’t believe that the industry seat (currently occupied by Bills) was delegated as it is supposed to according to our code. According to our code, the seat is supposed to be chosen by the industry representatives, and I believe that is not how it was chosen this time,” Gaffney said, also noting that AMG had not had time to collect ski-run data this year due to the season’s early closure as a result of COVID-19.

Some committee members questioned the claim that track-log data is unavailable. So far, despite multiple requests, SEABA is the only operator that has provided any information.

“I just have a question for industry, do you actually have the track logs or do you not?” Shultz asked.

Operators had a range of answers.

“We have limited information but not what you’re looking for in any shape or form,” Gaffney said.

Operator Sean Brownell said he could request the data from the company that stores it, although he’s not sure how far back they keep records.

SEABA has provided the committee with data points related to take-off and landing locations. At the meeting, committee members said they would prefer more complete flight information, which Bills said the company has.

“Yes, SEABA does keep pretty decent and robust records of where they are flying,” Bills said, reminding members that the committee lacks the authority to compel SEABA to provide this information.

Bills said she thinks it would make more sense to have operators collect ski-run and flight data during the upcoming season, if it comes to pass, rather than delving into historical records.

The committee voted to recommend that it be allowed to continue work on map revisions for another year based on the LCC proposal and industry track logs. The recommendation passed 3-2. Josephson and Bills said they voted “no” because of language referencing industry track logs.

It implies that the industry will be required to provide track logs, which the committee lacks the authority to compel, Josephson said.

The map committee’s recommendation will go to interim manager Alekka Fullerton, who will, in turn, present her own recommendation to the assembly. Under code, Fullerton is not bound to the committee’s recommendation.

If the assembly approves the committee’s recommendation, committee work will continue through Sept. 30 of next year and the heliski map will remain unchanged for the 2021 season.