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

Heliski committee makes deadline, skipping some areas

 


Monday’s heliski Map Committee meeting was its last, despite long discussion on wildlife habitat and clerical map errors leaving unfinished business on the table.

The committee had a Nov. 30 deadline to make recommendations to Haines Borough Manager Bill Seward. Assembly representative Ron Jackson planned to ask for more time at an assembly meeting scheduled for Nov. 29, but the meeting was canceled due to inclement weather.

In an email, Jackson said he discussed the dilemma with Seward and decided to uphold the deadline. The committee’s recommendations were turned in as is, along with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game input on six areas the committee had planned to revisit but did not get to.

Committee members reviewed boundary changes Monday to seven areas proposed by Sean Brownell, co-owner of Alaska Heliskiing and official representative of the heliskiing industry on the committee.

Brownell said most of his proposals - on behalf of Alaska Heliskiing - corrected map errors, moving boundary lines to follow ridge lines and other topography for the safety of skiers and helicopter pilots.

“There’s no financial [gain] in any of these map changes,” Brownell said. “It’s not a financial thing.”

Committee member Lori Smith said, “It sounds like a liability to the borough…” if the committee doesn’t do its best to ensure safety.

Borough planner Holly Smith also requested the committee recommend allowing clerical corrections to be made up to a year after the final map is approved.

“Even with all of our work in this committee, there’s still going to be some errors,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that people have to wait for three years before those very simple, small changes can get corrected.”

Members unanimously approved Brownell’s changes to four of the areas they reviewed Monday.

One boundary line – for AH2a – was extended a few hundred yards so helicopters could land on an elevated rock out of the path of potential avalanches.

One extended area – for AH2b – would allow access to the end of the road used by Constantine Metal Resources for an easy emergency escape for skiiers and possible fuel storage.

One corrected a clerical error by moving the boundary line along the ridge top in AH1.

“That’s fairly representative of errors throughout the map,” Brownell said.

Another would move a boundary line to grab a better landing place in AH3b.

Haines resident Eric Holle, who attended the meeting, asked for the committee to consider that a new Alaska Department of Fish and Game report with more detailed research on mountain goat habitat and brown bear dens will be released in six to 12 months.

Holly Smith said data from Fish and Game that the committee had to consider was largely estimations based on old data.

Mosquito Lake resident Joe Ordonez brought up the topic of trust: Should the committee trust the heliski companies to adjust their runs if Fish and Game determines there’s mountain goat or brown bear activity within or too near to a newly approved boundary line?

Or should the committee err on the side of caution in approving proposed boundaries in anticipation that the heliski companies may say “We have the permits, we’re going to go ahead anyway”?, Ordonez asked.

Jackson said he thinks there is a flaw in borough code that the heliski map can only be reviewed once every three years.

The committee, except Brownell, voted to oppose one of Brownell’s proposed areas – AH3a – on account of wildlife biologist Carl Koch’s input that the area is important winter mountain goat habitat. Collared goats had been tracked in that area.

On another Alaska Heliskiing area that is minimally used for filmmaking, AH4a, the committee suggested Brownell work with Fish and Game to cut the area nearly in half to ensure there is a 1,500-meter buffer between the skiing area and mountain goats.

The final area the group discussed Monday – AH6 – was approved 3-2 with a caveat that it will close March 31. Lori Smith, Scott Sundberg, and Sean Brownell were in favor, and Jackson and Meredith Pochardt were against. The boundary line changes would turn that area into a horseshoe shape, so a helicopter can safely land and see skiiers across the valley, Brownell said.

“I feel good about the amount of discussion and interactions we had as we tried to reach consensus on these proposals,” Jackson said about the committee process. “It was good to see the positive interactions between the industry and the residents. The phrase ‘good neighbor’ was used multiple times and that was a refreshing concept that will help to balance commerce with stewardship.”

 
 

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