Freeride World Tour is coming back to Haines in 2016. The organization asked the borough for permission to scout potential competition sites outside the heliski boundaries. And despite a strongly-worded letter from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game urging the borough not to grant permission, the assembly voted to allow the permit, excluding one of the most sensitive areas. The resolution sparked debate between local conservation groups, a heliski company owner, and the borough’s tourism department.
Earlier this year, in March, the Freeride World Tour made its first-ever Alaska stop. And they chose Haines. Despite weather delays, the event was successful. Many in Haines enjoyed the backcountry action, and the stacks of cash that skiers and snowboarders, media and organizers were spending on hotels, in bars and in restaurants.
For the 2016 event, Freeride requested another special events’ permit that would allow them access to three areas not authorized to use by local heliski guides. The areas requested are closer to town. Here’s Haines Tourism Director Leslie Ross.
“Freeride will only be using one location. They’re asking for three out of bounds location, they also have several in-bounds locations pointed out. When this event occurs, it will occur in one space, so they’re not asking for three out-of-bounds areas to use all three. They want to have as many venues open as possible to allow them to choose for safety, for light, for snow conditions.”
The Special Heliski Competition Permit was recommended for approval by former borough manager Dave Sosa just two days before he moved out of town earlier this month. In the letter, he says that borough staff met with special interest groups to discuss the permit and its potential impacts. But local conservation advocates at the meeting said they couldn’t find any evidence of that consultation. Here’s Lynn Canal Conservation board member Scott Carey.
“Before you vote on this, you should know that there’s been no community input on these areas at all,” Carey said.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game was consulted, however, and in a letter to the borough, biologist Carl Koch strongly advised against allowing any out of bounds permits.
Pam Randles is the director of Alaska Chilkoot Bear Foundation and was one of many to speak out against the special permit.
“The bear foundation met as a board and we strongly agree with Fish and Game that those particular three areas are very sensitive areas for bear, for goats and for wolverines. I’ve personally seen them there in the winter, I’ve seen them making dens,” she said. “These are sensitive areas.”
Koch’s letter states that collared goats are known to winter in the requested areas – on Takhin Ridge, in the Takshanuk Range and at a spot called Ceasars. He wrote that the proposed activity would have a negative impact on those goats. He also stated that brown-bear dens were observed in two of the three sites and that denning wolverine could very well be holed up in those areas. He said allowing the permit would ignore the lengthy process that set those boundaries in the first place.
Scott Sundberg is the owner of Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures and a liaison for the Freeride group. He said the recommendations from ADF&G don’t have enough data or concrete findings. He added that Freeride and the heliski community have no interest in disrupting wildlife.
“This is a one- or two-day event,” Sundberg said. “If we were to inspect these sites and we inspect them rather diligently, if there’s wildlife present, it’s immediately scratched.”
On the phone from Switzerland was Nicholas Hale-Woods, the general manager of Freeride World Tour. He said the 2015 event was a lifetime highlight for the skiers and crew.
“We were touched by the community’s welcoming and the unique quality of the mountain range was mind-blowing,” he said.
Hale-Woods offered to take an observer over the sites, prior to any snow inspections, to scope out the wildlife situation. He said the Freeride community is sensitive to the concerns and will make an effort to limit the number of people and activity in the chosen spot.
After a lot of testimony for, but mostly against, the permit, the assembly agreed the Freeride crew and skiers were professional and respectful. And the event gave a much-needed boost to the local economy. But they also agreed that more locals should have been consulted. Assembly member Margaret Friedenauer moved to eliminate the Takshanuk option – a culturally sensitive area that Fish and Game says is home to wintering goats – from the list of out-of-bounds areas. That motion passed unanimously.
Assembly member Tresham Gregg then suggested using one of the remaining prohibited areas only as a last resort. George Campbell responded, saying that with the organization’s sterling reputation, and lots of eyes on them from around the world, the assembly should trust that they know what they’re doing.
“We’re putting restrictions on wildlife distances, we’re putting other such restrictions on them, I think we should just let them operate and trust that they’re going to do the best job they can to do the least amount of impact on everything,” said Campbell, who attended the meeting on the phone. “Again, part of their audience is also very conscious of wildlife and the environment, and they don’t the reputation of being the people out destroying the environment either.”
Assembly member Ron Jackson proposed an amendment that would put in writing that Freeride must bring an observer over the sites before any competition activity. That passed unanimously. The main motion to allow the permit, excluding Takshanuk, passed 5-1, with Gregg opposed.
The Freeride World Tour brought more than 100 athletes, organizers and media to Haines in 2015. The Haines portion of the 2016 event is slated for March 17.