Assembly approves Alaska Excursions ATV permit
January 24, 2019
In a 4-1 vote, the Haines Borough Assembly approved the renewal of Alaska Excursions’ Glacier Point ATV permit that prompted questions about how far the assembly should reach as it regulates tour operators.
The tour company’s permit was approved with conditions that it reduce its capacity, make its safety plan public, provide a human waste disposal plan and allow for borough “visitation,” a word assembly member Sean Maidy insisted on using in place of “inspection” because, he said, the borough didn’t have the authority or expertise to conduct an inspection.
Alaska Excursions owner Robert Murphy said his company served 1,500 guests last summer with its ATV tour, although its 2018 permit allowed a capacity of 15,000. The amendment to this year’s permit caps capacity at 8,000. Assembly members Stephanie Scott, Heather Lende and Tom Morphet insisted that the company install a septic system in place of its composting toilets.
Borough manager Debra Schnabel said if the borough assembly requires the company to install a septic system, it ought to require all tour companies to do so. Mayor Jan Hill also questioned that requirement and argued that, “There are households in the Haines Borough using composting toilets and we’re not doing anything to them.”
Morphet said unlike rafting trips that put in and pull out near public restrooms along the river, there are no public facilities at Glacier Point. “We’re talking about number two and where it goes,” Morphet said. “It’s facetious for us to believe a couple of composting toilets is really a responsible way for dealing with that much number two.”
A similar argument regarding imposing standards industry wide was posed about requiring Alaska Excursions’ safety plan to be made public. Murphy said the company’s safety plan was proprietary information. Assembly member Brenda Josephson said there’s no benefit to making the plan public.
“What you’ll have is a document where everyone will be an armchair quarterback saying it’s not good enough,” Josephson said.
Morphet questioned Murphy as to whether the company has changed its safety practices. “I think what we’re doing here is considering the history of this company,” Morphet said. “We are asking for a higher level of public assurance that public safety will be a priority and will be adhered to.”
Last year, about 10 of the company’s former Glacier Point guides publicly criticized Alaska Excursions for neglecting safety and maintenance practices when the company applied for its ATV permit. Many employees rebuked those criticisms. In July, a man drowned during a Glacier Point canoe tour after it overturned in swift water near the canoe launch area.
Although Murphy disputes the allegations from former employees, many of whom he said were fired, he told Morphet and the assembly that his company has hired a safety director and made changes to address concerns. “I know I will never satisfy you, Mr. Morphet, for whatever reason,” Murphy said. “I don’t know what I can say to assure everyone else that we have truly dove into every part of our company, everything that we do.”
Maidy said it wasn’t right to punish the company’s ATV tour for alleged safety issues at a different tour. “If the big question about the safety of the company that’s hovering over this decision, it’s been said before, it’s a different tour,” Maidy said. “The things that went wrong are not going to be used on this tour. We have to give them a chance to do better.”
Tour industry leaders Thom Ely and Scott Sundberg spoke in support of Murphy. “We all try to do our best to keep everyone safe,” Sundberg said. “In hindsight, if it comes down that he was negligent, then maybe the borough should consider not supporting the permit.”
Ely said he’s known Murphy for years and that he generally runs a good operation, and that he should be allowed to continue his operation.
Morphet was the only assembly member to vote against renewing the permit.
Murphy also applied to renew his Glacier Point canoe tour. Borough clerk Alekka Fullerton denied the permit, because he violated Alaska law by failing to register his canoes, according to an Alaska State Trooper investigation of the drowning.
The clerk can deny a permit application if the permittee fails to comply with local, state and federal laws.
Murphy can appeal the clerk’s decision and the issue will go before a public hearing where borough manager Debra Schnabel will make a determination.