The word of the night was compromise on Monday, as the heliski map committee and community members attempted to work together on where heliski activity should be allowed.
It hasn’t been an easy process. The current heliski map committee was controversial from its conception. When two industry players who submitted changes earned seats in the group, one of them representing the general public, the question of conflict of interest overshadowed the actual work.
Then, the process of reviewing map changes was slow to start. Several areas were punted, to be revised before going to a vote.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is involved mainly to advise on critical goat habitat, but they won’t have concrete data on that until long after the committee’s deadline has passed.
At the last borough assembly meeting, Assemblyman Tom Morphet said he’s planning to draft an ordinance to get rid of the committee after this iteration.
It’s clearly not a perfect operation. But at Monday’s meeting one thing was clear: community members and industry players were open to working together toward the benefit of both parties.
“Anytime you compromise, people come together and compromise, you build a relationship that positive things can come out of. A lot of this discontent between the industry and some of the other users, I’d like to see it disappear and see us all come together a little bit more,” said Sean Brownell. He owns Alaska Heliskiing and holds the industry representative seat on the committee. At Monday’s meeting, he advocated for working together with residents.
The biggest compromise happened during the discussion of one of SEABA’s proposals. That stands for Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures, another local heliskiing business. For the committee’s purposes the area is known as S3b. It’s on the Chilkat Range, facing Chilkat Inlet.
According to SEABA’s owner and committee member Scott Sundberg, this is a spot that was historically used without complaint, until the heliski map was conceived. Now, they’d like it back.
But Haines resident Eric Holle said this is one spot that local backcountry skiers would like to continue to access.
“You get a really long run,” said Holle. “You’re actually about 6,000 feet up there. And you come down. In a good year you can go all the way to the beach.”
Sundberg agreed about the quality of the ski run.
“It’s a long run,” said Sundberg. “It’s got pretty mellow slopes, most people can ski it. About anyone can ski it really, it’s not that steep. And it’s got a great view.”
He said this is a spot that has drawn business to Haines.
“Some people that have skied around the world say it’s one of the most awesome runs that is out there,” said Sundberg.
One of the criteria the committee is supposed to be deciding on is commerce. Drawing more skiers to Haines is certainly an argument for that. But Holle said spots like this one are why some people choose Haines as their home, contributing to the economy in a different way.
“A lot of people live here year round because they can do exactly this kind of thing,” said Holle. “And they don’t necessarily have to have a helicopter to do it. And that actually creates a sturdy, very malleable sort of economy that is hard to quantify. People living here, spending money, paying taxes.”
Neither party asked to completely exclude the other from skiing there, and they discussed creating a shared use agreement in the area. Here’s Sundberg.
“I’m a skier; I want everyone to enjoy the mountains,” said Sundberg. “And that’s why it shouldn’t be just one or the other in this area. I think places do need to be set aside for quiet recreation.”
Ultimately, the committee voted to recommend the map change for approval, with the inclusion of a shared use agreement. That would allow non-motorized users like backcountry skiers to enjoy the run at agreed upon times, without helicopter activity.
This area drew a lot of discussion at the meeting, but the committee also voted to recommend four other changes to the borough manager for approval. Another was partially recommended.
The next meeting will be held November 21 at 5 p.m.