Changes to the Haines commercial ski tour areas map will wait until later this year. The Haines Borough Assembly wants to postpone map amendments because of conflict of interest and wildlife concerns. On Tuesday, the assembly finalized that decision.
A heliski map committee met several times over the last few months to comb through map amendment requests from two companies. From the beginning, the committee was afflicted with two major complaints:
One had to do with conflict of interest allegations. Two members of the five-person committee are part owners of the heliski companies that requested the map amendments.
Two, there are concerns about how wildlife might be impacted by map realignments. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is finishing up studies on mountain goat and bear habitat in the Chilkat Valley.
Map committee chairman and Assembly member Ron Jackson made a proposal to remedy the tangle of controversy around the committee.
“I support this postponement, I think it’s the right thing to do,” Jackson said. “And between now and then, there’s a lot of changes we need to make with the heliski composition of the committee, or not.”
Jackson wanted to delay consideration of the map changes to summer of 2017, when the studies from Fish and Game are available and a new map committee is in place.
“We spent three years waiting since the previous map committee to address some problems with the map,” said Ryan Johnson, who is part owner of Alaska Heliskiing, one of the businesses that requested amendments to the map.
Johnson said first of all, the conflict of the interest concerns are unwarranted, because a three percent increase in ski terrain does not impact the company’s finances.
And he said the changes Alaska Heliskiing wanted were all about safety.
“The safest heliski zone that we could have would be no map,” Johnson said. “I understand that that’s not possible, we have to take into consideration wildlife and people don’t want to hear helicopters and that’s all wonderful. But we’re out there every day trying to make decisions based 100 percent on safety. And so when you start taking things away, you start to get less safe.”
Johnson said many of the amendments were aimed at fixing basic line-drawing errors on the map. Tourism Director Leslie Ross backed up that claim.
“Many of the proposed changes on this map are changes to the map that was done before that was misprinted by the previous planner,” Ross said. “A lot of these places that are being asked for are based on safety for landing and pick-up zones.”
Ross and Johnson also noted that a third heliski permit holder, Alaska Mountain Guides, looks like it will begin operating this winter in terrain that has, until now, been shared by just two companies.
Jackson acknowledged that some of the changes were about fixing errors on the map. But he said the credibility of the committee was too damaged to move forward with its suggestions. The assembly unanimously voted to postpone map changes.
There were two related proposals on Tuesday’s agenda. They deal with the makeup of the map committee and whether it should exist at all. One is from the Tourism Advisory Board, which was tasked by the assembly to recommend code changes about the committee’s makeup. However, TAB’s recommendations have been called into question by resident Eric Holle, who filed an appeal on the matter, and Assemblyman Tom Morphet. Both say the borough should reconsider the role of committees with a financial stake in a certain industry.
Morphet proposed getting rid of the map committee in code and leaving the review process to the assembly.
Instead of making decisions about those two proposals at Tuesday’s meeting, Jackson said the question of the heliski map committee deserved a more in-depth discussion.
“I think we just need to slow down and talk about this for a while, and get this straight about how we want map amendments to take place,” Jackson said.
The assembly decided to refer the matter to the commerce committee. When it comes time to look at the pending heliski map change requests again, who will do the vetting remains to be seen.