Assembly inches toward removing heliski limit
September 30, 2021
The vote followed a lengthy debate among assembly members—as well as several weeks of committee meetings and years of input from the public—about how the borough should regulate the heliski industry.
Citing the need to make a timely decision, assembly member Cheryl Stickler motioned to direct the borough manager to draft an ordinance that would remove the borough’s cap at three heliski permits. Stellar Adventure Travel applied for a fourth permit but was denied last spring, due to the borough’s limit, which was created in 2011 for a slew of reasons, including to mitigate impacts on the environment, backcountry users, goat hunters and neighbors concerned about noise.
Assembly members Stickler, Gabe Thomas and Paul Rogers voted for the motion. Members Caitie Kirby, Carol Tuynman and Jerry Lapp opposed it. Mayor Olerud split the tie, joining the motion’s supporters to push the debate forward. "If we stop this at this time, we're never going to get back to this (issue)," Olerud said. If there’s a 3-3 tie when the assembly votes on the ordinance, he said he'll join the three assembly members opposed to it.
Even if all goes without delay, the assembly couldn’t adopt the ordinance until January, only a few weeks before the heliski season starts. Before then, the assembly will hold three public hearings on the ordinance, which has yet to be written. It’s unclear how a code change would affect the upcoming season, although it could have consequences for years to come. While proponents of the change argue that more business competition will enhance the industry and Haines’ winter economy, those opposed to expanding the permit limit worry that doing so could lead to other regulatory changes, safety risks and greater environmental impact.
“Adding a fourth permit increases business competition, for sure, but it does not increase the user days,” Stickler said. “All this amendment will do is give other companies an opportunity to bring their clientele to go play in our mountains.”
Assembly member Caitie Kirby cautioned the assembly about rushing a decision to change code, particularly when many community members have voiced opposition to the change. “To me, it’s amazing and rare that the tourism industry, the environmental groups, the hunters, the local heli operators—it’s so rare that all of us kind of agree on anything,” Kirby said. “If we’re truly actually listening to our community, this decision will be really easy.”
At the Tuesday meeting, eight members of the public spoke against expanding or eliminating the permit limit, while two spoke in favor: Reggie Crist of Stellar Adventure Travel and Yancy Caldwell of Stellar Adventure Media, a related media company. At past meetings, the split has been more even, although the coalition against changing the codified limit appears broader. It includes, as Kirby said, environmental groups, local hunters, local heli operators and citizens concerned about noise—groups that rarely agree on policy issues.
Still, Stickler, who is chair of the Government Affairs and Services Committee, which ran several hearings this summer about the heliski issue, said “we took extensive public comment, and it was very much a mixed bag of being in favor and being opposed to changing the code.”
Kirby suggested that assembly members spend the winter doing research and wait until next year to make a decision.
“I kind of agree with what Caitie (Kirby) said about opening this up at this time of year so close to the season,” assembly member Jerry Lapp said. “If you change this to allow a fourth operator, there’s a person right behind them, a fifth operator, saying, ‘I want to operate there, too’ And a sixth. If you’re going to go down this road, maybe we should just throw away the map because we’re going to need a lot more area.”
While Haines is renowned globally for its burly ski lines, diverse terrain (trees and alpine) and deep powder, it has significantly less skiable area than other places in Alaska, like Valdez and Cordova.
In contrast with Stickler, who stressed there wasn’t much objective data to inform the assembly, assembly member Carol Tuynman said she considers “the fact that our local heliski permittees have such a tiny percent compared to other areas” to be objective. Tuynman suggested that the issue be evaluated in “a very organized and methodical way” and that a decision should be tabled until the assembly members could be fully informed.
“I have to ask my fellow assembly members: have any of you ever heliskiied?” Tuynman queried. No one replied or raised a hand.
A motion to create a working group on the issue failed unanimously.
Assembly member Paul Rogers voiced opposition to the fact that the borough regulates the heliski industry at all.
“I have a problem when the borough has to regulate something as complex as this, over land that’s not ours with equipment that’s regulated by a federal organization (FAA),” Rogers said. Heliskiing near Haines takes place on state forest and U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land. The borough began regulating heliskiing on state-owned land when the state scrapped a management plan in the early 2000s. BLM regulates heliskiing on its land. “The state and federal governments need to step up and take responsibility for this. It shouldn’t be the borough’s responsibility at all,” Rogers said.
Assembly member Gabe Thomas agreed, but “we’re stuck with it,” he acknowledged. Thomas said the assembly needs to create stability for the industry and that “if we’re going to do something like this...it needs to be locked up.”