TAB approves changes to heliski tour GPS reporting requirements
October 15, 2020
Tourism director Steven Auch, the point person for the revisions, said the changes are largely minor tweaks to ensure code and borough administrative policy clearly articulate requirements for heliski operators.
“The intent and point of all of this was not to make any changes, specifically. It was really a house sweeping. I’m not trying to change the tile in the floor. I’m just trying to sweep the floor,” Auch said.
The most substantial proposed changes relate to GPS data-reporting requirements for heliski tour operators. Operators are required to record flight GPS data and turn the information over to the borough upon request. At present, operators are subject to five GPS spot checks per season.
Under proposed changes, operators would be subject to three spot checks, with the possibility of additional checks at the borough’s discretion.
The change is designed to save costs and staff time. Auch said spot checks cost the borough roughly $1,500 last year, even after it collected a $250 fine from Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures (SEABA) for an unspecified, safety-related permit infraction.
New language in borough administrative policy specifies that when GPS data is requested by the borough, operators must “provide the borough with unedited helicopter flight data from the entire 24-hour period of each day requested” and that data points must be taken in “two-minute intervals at minimum.”
Auch said the new language isn’t a change from current borough policy.
“It clarified what we were asking for before,” he said, adding, “You always hope you’d get unedited data.”
Auch said the proposed revision isn’t related to issues with SEABA this year. Glacier Bay National Park is currently investigating whether the company operated illegally over park lands during the 2020 heliski season.
TAB members offered little feedback on the proposed changes to heliski code and administrative policy.
“If this is going to be housekeeping… nothing has stood out to me as really needing a full discussion,” board member Barbara Mulford said, adding that industry input should be considered before changes are finalized.
TAB member Sean Gaffney, one of three heliski operators in the Chilkat Valley in 2020, raised no objections to the proposed changes, although he said he couldn’t speak for the industry as a whole.
heliski map committee member Derek Poinsette, who listened to the TAB meeting, said he thinks the changes will be a marked improvement.
“The new language should make it very clear that operators are not allowed to edit their spot-check data before they submit it to the borough. They must submit a full and complete log of that day’s heliski operations, without omissions,” he said in an interview after the TAB meeting.
At the meeting, board members also approved moving the heliski tour permit application deadline up by a month to July 31, to allow operators more time to plan winter schedules.
The meeting also included discussion of the role of the heliski map committee after Haines Chamber of Commerce executive director Tracey Harmon raised questions on the subject during public comment.
“I would like to question the authority of the heliski map committee to make recommendations on the approved commercial ski tour areas map… this entire process seems to be a major depletion of borough resources,” Harmon said, noting that the Bureau of Land Management already regulates heliski operators to a certain extent and adding that she thinks conservation-oriented members of the committee are intent on shutting down the heliski industry.
The map committee is in the process of soliciting input from industry representatives as it works to finalize a recommendation that could limit heliski activity in the Takhinsha mountain range, an effort that was prompted by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s closure of the region to mountain goat hunting due to conservation concerns.
Auch clarified that the heliski code changes proposed by staff would have no impact on the map committee’s work.
TAB members agreed that it wouldn’t make sense to comment on map committee recommendations until they’ve been finalized. TAB chair Andy Hedden requested that, in the meantime, Harmon submit a list of concerns so board members can consider the best way to address them.
The heliski map committee meets next on Oct. 15. Poinsette said the committee is still a ways off from finalizing a recommendation.