Assembly ends heliski map committee work
Manager plans to continue discussion of industry regulation
October 29, 2020
The assembly voted down the heliski map committee’s request to continue work for another year.
At a meeting earlier this month, the map committee voted 3-2 to ask for an extension through Sept. 30, 2021 to give members time to come up with map recommendations that balanced heliski industry needs with environmentalists’ concerns about dwindling mountain goat populations.
The assembly voted down a motion to extend the map committee’s deadline put forward by newly seated member Caitie Kirby in a 4-2 vote. Kirby and Carol Tuynman, another newly seated member, were the two in support of the extension.
“If I thought that extending the map committee would at all affect the 2021 (heliski) season in a negative way and would affect (operators’) ability to plan, I wouldn’t be okay with it,” Kirby said, citing statements from committee members indicating that they have no plans to recommend changes for the 2021 season. Even if they did, the assembly has the final say on map changes, Kirby said. “I don’t see any harm in letting them have a conversation.”
Due to code changes scheduled to take effect at the end of the year, the map committee isn’t scheduled to meet again until 2025.
During public comment at Tuesday’s meeting, heliski map committee member Derek Poinsette, Lynn Canal Conservation (LCC) board president Eric Holle and hunter Steve Fossman spoke in favor of letting the committee continue its work.
“The reason for this committee to continue into next year is because we are having a conversation and we are engaged in a process with all stakeholders participating,” Poinsette said, noting the level of engagement from industry and the mountain goat habitat data available from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) are both much better than they were the last time the committee met.
“I think what you just have is a big problem of distrust on both sides,” Fossman said. “You really need to look at managing the industry… try not to make it a political left-side, right-side issue, just try to manage things properly.”
Those opposed to continuing map committee work cited the regulatory burden placed on the heliski industry.
“It is bad for business to make exceptions to code, causing delays and uncertainty,” Haines Chamber of Commerce executive director Tracey Harmon said during public comment.
Newly seated assembly member and deputy Mayor Cheryl Stickler said she has doubts about whether the recent decline in the Takhinsha Range mountain goat population is related to heliski activity, suggesting it could have more to do with hunting activity in the area.
“Because ADF&G has already shut down the goat hunting, let’s see what happens to the population. I think I know what’s going to happen to that goat population,” she said.
ADFG biologist Kevin White said without further analysis, it’s impossible to say why the mountain goat population has declined by roughly 50% in the area since 2016. The department’s decision to close down the hunt was based on the determination that the population had declined to a point that prevents a sustainable harvest, not because hunting is believed to be the cause of the decline.
White said likewise, it’s impossible to say that heliskiing has caused the goat population decline, but there is evidence that helicopter activity places stress on mountain goats.
“(Scientific peer-reviewed) studies have produced consistent results and indicated that helicopter disturbance has negative effects on mountain goat behavior and movement patterns and, in some instances, has resulted in population decline. The consensus of the scientific community, based on such studies, is that helicopter disturbance is a conservation concern,” White said, adding that he thinks the map committee’s interest in limiting heliski activity in mountain goat habitat stems from “interest in reducing stress on the population, however possible, to promote recovery.”
Assembly member comments at Tuesday’s meeting frequently returned to the theme of whether the borough should regulate the heliski industry at all.
“There are adequate state and federal agencies responsible for game management and flight paths, and we need to stay out of that. We’re not experts in that area at all,” assembly member Paul Rogers said.
“I’m tired of the borough overreach,” said assembly member Gabe Thomas, adding that while he has no intention of eliminating the heliski map committee permanently, he thinks the current committee make-up is biased in favor of conservation interests.
“I believe this committee was stacked on purpose. I feel that there was very limited notice, and it seemed like it was very corrupt the way the committee in this particular year was selected,” Thomas said. “I believe it was set up to do exactly what we’re discussing, closing down an industry.”
Holle, who is not a member of the map committee, disputes this claim. In 2019, LCC submitted a proposal which suggests using ADFG-modeled winter goat habitat to help redraw the map. Holle said the proposal was designed to jump-start a discussion.
In written comment submitted to the assembly, Holle said, “Our intent was never to close all winter goat habitat to the industry, but rather, to use the habitat map as a starting point to create a heliski map that is protective of both wildlife and of industry interests.”
In an interview Wednesday, Fullerton said the borough followed the process outlined in code when it named members of the public to the heliski committee. Under code, one seat is reserved for a representative from a local conservation organization, appointed by the Mayor; one is an assembly member; one is a heliski industry representative; and two are members of the public chosen randomly from those who petition to be members of the committee.
“(Then manager Debra Schnabel) put out a request for people interested in serving on the map committee, and I do think the only people who applied tended to be associated with conservation interests,” Fullerton said, adding that this is one reason changes in heliski code that go into effect next year allow for additional appointments to the committee.
“So if we see that it’s really unbalanced, we can correct it with additional appointments. It’s not that useful if any committee is just representing one side,” Fullerton said.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Fullerton noted that discussion of the proposal to extend heliski map committee work seemed to have moved to broader themes regarding the way the industry is regulated.
“I think the problems that need to be addressed have nothing to do with the map committee, and we don’t need a proposal in front of us in order to have a conversation,” Fullerton said. “I feel like we’re very reactionary in the Haines Borough. We wait until two weeks before a decision needs to be made. I would like to start having conversations earlier.”
Fullerton said she thinks finding a way to simplify industry regulations will benefit both the industry and those who want the industry to comply with regulations.
“I do agree that the industry is over-regulated, and I think we have a lot of rules that are hard to follow,” Fullerton said, referencing borough attempts to regulate airspace, which is something that falls to the Federal Aviation Administration. “We make it really hard for the industry to comply, and so they throw their hands up and don’t try,” she said.
Fullerton said the idea of facilitating a broader discussion about heliski industry regulation came to her after Tuesday’s meeting. She said the plan is still at a very early stage. At this point, she doesn’t know when it will take place or who will be involved in the discussion.
This year, Haines Borough spot-checks, required under code, found that heliski operator Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures (SEABA) had “significant activity” on Glacier Bay National Park land on March 17. Glacier Bay National Park is currently investigating the incident.