Heliski code hearing reflects sharp divide

Committee-of-the-whole meeting scheduled for Nov. 29


November 11, 2021

Twenty seven people, including a Scottish expedition guide with National Geographic, commented at a Tuesday hearing on a draft ordinance that would remove Haines Borough’s limit on heliski tour permits for a year. Fourteen people spoke in favor of the ordinance. Thirteen spoke against it.

While testimonies mostly advanced familiar arguments about safety, free enterprise, the environment and Haines’ winter economy, the uptick in public commenters and a passionate tone — exhibited by allegations of unethical business dealings against potential fourth operator Stellar Adventure Travel and mention of a possible lawsuit against the borough if the ordinance is passed — revealed the stakes of the assembly’s decision.

The borough scheduled a committee-of-the-whole meeting to address the issue and for the public to weigh in more openly — but with new information rather than rehashing old points — on Nov. 29 at 6:30 p.m.

Following the public comments on Tuesday, borough assembly members unanimously made two amendments to the proposed ordinance. One struck out a change that would have made operators pay a $5 fee for skier days before the season. The amended draft says that for 2022 only operators could continue to pay the fee after the season. Local guides told the assembly that a pay-in-advance model would impose high costs because forecasting skier-day use with precision is challenging due to weather and other variables.

The other amendment removed a proposed criterion for determining an operator’s standing. Current code gives permitting preference to operators in “good standing” but doesn’t define that phrase. The draft ordinance includes a list of metrics for the borough to follow in making a determination on an operator’s standing. The assembly struck out one of those criteria — “the economic impact of the (skier-day) allocation on the permittee.”

Assembly member Debra Schnabel motioned to cut that suggested standard, which she said is “highly subjective” and would be difficult to analyze. Assembly member Paul Rogers agreed with the motion but for a different reason, saying the economic impact of skier-day allocation on a company is the company’s concern, not the borough’s.

In addition to removing the permit cap in 2022, the proposed ordinance would require the borough manager to allocate skier days earlier in the year; it would mandate that operators file wildlife observation reports every two weeks instead of at the end of the year; and it would facilitate the borough’s collection of GPS data from operators.

Haines Borough tourism director Steven Auch presented specifics to the assembly about how the borough currently collects and analyzes GPS data from operators. Borough staff conduct three to five spot checks per year on each operator, Auch said, but the dates of the checks can vary from one operator to the next. In other words, the borough knows little about where operators go day-to-day.

“We are missing some key information if you really want to know when and where helicopters are flying, such as snowpack and weather. We have no clue as to what decisions are being made as to why (operators) fly in one area or another. We also have no idea if there is any communication (among operators in the field),” Auch said.

The draft ordinance would make significantly more data available to the borough and the public, but it’s not clear how the borough would meet the capacity needed to analyze all that data.

Assembly member Caitie Kirby motioned to amend the draft ordinance to say explicitly that all helicopter flight paths and landings be recorded and that the borough use that data to inform heliski map amendments and allocation of permits and skier days. The motion failed 4-3, with Mayor Douglas Olerud saying he supported the motion’s intent but that its language could be refined. Assembly members Kirby, Schnabel and Tyler Huling backed the motion, with members Rogers, Cheryl Stickler and Gabe Thomas opposed.

The Haines Chamber of Commerce submitted a letter to the assembly Tuesday in support of the ordinance, citing the Haines Economic Development Corporation’s 2018 economic baseline report, which showed that 94% of surveyed residents supported the growth of winter tourism.

On Oct. 28, the Tourism Advisory Board backed the draft ordinance after a 4-1 vote, with members arguing that heliskiing should be regulated like other tourism industries in which any operator can apply for a permit.

Representing Lynn Canal Conservation on Tuesday, Eric Holle asked the assembly to keep the permit cap at three due to safety, conflict with other backcountry users and mountain goat concerns. “If you think you have an overly restricted industry now, wait until the feds come in,” Holle said, speculating that a decline in goat population could lead to federal Endangered Species Act enforcement.

Funny Farm manager Mark Kelly said keeping the permit cap at three would cause the business to close. “Stellar is my hooligan fish,” Kelly said, referring to the vital significance of hooligan, or eulachon, to Chilkat and Chilkoot Tlingit society and culture.

Erin Bills and Nick Trimble of local operator SEABA alleged the borough would be partaking in special legislation if it adopted the ordinance and granted Stellar a permit. (Special legislation refers to a law that targets an individual or company of a given class without applying to all members of that class.) “You guys are opening yourselves up to litigation,” Bills told the assembly.

Borough manager Annette Kreitzer told the CVN that simply changing code to eliminate the permit limit wouldn’t be special legislation. Any operator that wanted could apply for the fourth permit. “I’ve seen special legislation (in the state legislature),” Kreitzer said. “This is not special legislation.”

Gerry Moffatt, a renowned Scottish kayaker and filmmaker and an expedition leader for National Geographic, tuned in on Zoom to praise Stellar owner Reggie Crist’s professionalism. Moffatt called Crist “an iconic figure” in the skiing world and a “terrific bonus” to Haines.

Moffatt’s comment came about 45 minutes after SEABA part owner and photographer Will Wissman said “Stellar has been incapable of doing ethical business with all three existing operators.” Over the last two decades, Stellar has partnered with each of the operators. As the CVN reported in June, SEABA, along with Alaska Heliskiing, and Stellar disputed how much debt Stellar owed.

Several commenters praised Crist’s character and business for creating an enjoyable atmosphere and attracting unique clientele. Some also suggested that if the ordinance passed and Stellar received a fourth tour permit, the borough wouldn’t really be adding a new operator because Crist and Stellar have been bringing skiers to Haines for at least a decade.

But other residents have voiced concerns that eliminating the cap will lead to more helicopter use and, eventually, an expanded heliski map. Haines has significantly less available terrain per operator than Alaska’s other popular heliski destinations. (Some guides who spoke at the meeting said there already have been conflicts in the field between operators; others disagreed.)

‘If you’re going to look at (adding) this (fourth) permit, only do it through the lens of adding additional terrain. That’s the only way to do it safely” said Alaska Mountain Guides president Sean Gaffney. “When I’m saying that there are safety issues, there are safety issues.”

After the Nov. 29 committee-of-the-whole meeting, there will be a second public hearing on Dec. 14 prior to the assembly’s vote.


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