The Haines heliski map committee met Thursday to hear an overview of proposed map changes. But first, the group was sidetracked by the question of whether one of the committee members has a conflict of interest because of his connection to the heliski industry.
The borough’s attorney took a stance on the issue, writing an ethics opinion about the role of the two industry players that sit on the committee. Sean Brownell, owner of Alaska Heliskiing, holds the official industry seat. But Scott Sundberg, owner of Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures, or SEABA, is also on the committee. He was randomly chosen for one of the two spots set aside for Haines residents. Assemblyman and committee chair Ron Jackson explained the attorney’s position.
“Obviously Mr. Sundberg’s presence here as a permit holder applicant and representing everyone as a resident is the appearance and actually is a conflict of interest, according to the attorney,” said Jackson.
Sundberg said he read it differently and there is no conflict of interest.
“I’ve read it and my attorney’s read it,” said Sundberg. “I’ve come up with some scenarios where you have a conflict of interest, where you should recuse yourself. And I have several where Sean Dog should recuse himself and maybe Meredith. We all have reasons to recuse ourselves.”
Sundberg was referring to Sean Brownell and Meredith Pochardt, who serves as the conservation chair on the committee. KHNS couldn’t view the borough attorney’s opinion in its entirety because borough code states that the attorney’s opinion is confidential until the people it’s about, in this case Sundberg and Brownell both agree to make it public. As of this report, they have not granted that permission. But at Thursday’s meeting, Jackson explained the attorney’s stance. He said two questions were addressed. The first, is a heliski permit holder eligible to sit on the committee as long as he’s a borough resident?
“He says yes,” said Jackson. “But the second question is, is he allowed to vote?”
The answer to that question was not obvious. Sundberg and Brownell are the two heliski company owners who submitted map amendment requests.
“So for those applications that you put in for – I think you have seven areas you want to expand—on those things, those would be a conflict of interest and you should recuse yourself,” said Jackson.
Jackson said the attorney also addressed Brownell being on the committee.
“What he said in there was that when the borough set up that code that asked for you to be on the committee it accepted that bias toward your own things,” said Jackson.
Sundberg said in order for him to recuse himself, they would need to prove that he would have substantial financial gain from the proposed change. He said although he is part of the industry, his interest on the committee is to represent the residents.
“Most of these decisions are in the name of safety and operations and it has nothing to do with finances,” said Sundberg. “So unless you can prove that I’m gaining financially, it’s not a conflict of interest.”
Sundberg said if a majority of the committee wants him to recuse himself from decisions on the proposed changes from his company, he will.
Borough Manager Bill Seward says the makeup of this committee cannot be changed at this point. Right now, code does not explicitly prohibit an industry member from holding a resident seat. At the last assembly meeting, Seward introduced code changes to clarify that people affiliated with an environmental or heliski group cannot serve in the resident seats. The assembly chose to send the issue to the Tourism Advisory Board, which is working on revisions to that section of code.
As for whether Sundberg should recuse himself, the committee will address that questions at upcoming meetings when they get to his proposed map changes.
The committee has a tight timeline to address all of the map amendment requests. Assemblyman Mike Case spoke up as a member of the public, suggesting all of the map areas be put on each agenda, so that the committee can get through as many as possible at each meeting. Sundberg agreed.
“If you have a true interest in being at these meetings you should come to every meeting and sit here and wait until its your turn to make public comment,” said Sundberg.
But Jackson disagreed.
“I don’t think I want to list all of them,” said Jackson.
“Well, I think I do,” said Sundberg.
“It’s unfair to the public,” said Jackson.
“It’s not unfair to the public,” said Sundberg.
“Excuse me,” said Jackson. “It’s unfair to the public to say we’re going to tackle 14 when there’s no way in hell we’re going to do 14.”
The main point of the meeting was to hear from Brownell, the industry representative, an overview of all fourteen proposed map changes. As he walked through the map, he said most of the suggestions were made with safety in mind, particularly to protect against avalanches.
“The reason we want to add some of these areas is, you can see on this zone up the valley, there’s just a couple hundred yard border added up here and that’s just so skiers and helicopters and stuff can get out of the avalanche run-out paths,” said Brownell.
Alaska Fish and Game wildlife biologist Kevin White joined the conversation by phone. White is working on a study of mountain goat habitat in the Upper Lynn Canal, but that data will likely not be finalized until the Spring. White said they do have some information that could be helpful now.
ACT: We can use the information we have for those areas to identify, okay that’s a spot mountain goats are using. We know that for sure because we have location information.
White said there are several spots that they already know are important for goat habitats.
There was some disagreement between Brownell and White about where goats are living, and Sundberg and White had different opinions about whether goats habituate– or get used to – helicopter and ski activity. Sundberg said there is evidence that goats adjust to that activity. White said there’s limited information to suggest mountain goats are habituated to helicopter disturbances. Brownell, Sundberg and White all agreed there should be more sharing of information between the heliskiing industry and Fish and Game.
The committee will begin reviewing and voting on specific map amendments at the next meeting on November 1.