A helicopter in Alaska. (Kevin Duffy/Flickr Creative Commons)

A helicopter in Alaska. (Kevin Duffy/Flickr Creative Commons)

The newly-formed Haines heliski map committee met for the first time Tuesday. The committee has a tight deadline to review amendment requests for the existing map that dictates where heliskiing can take place in the Haines area. The committee hasn’t even started its work, but there is already controversy surrounding it.

The controversy has to do with the committee’s makeup. Two of the five members are also owners of the heliskiing companies that filed the map amendment requests.

The committee’s job is to make a recommendation to Borough Manager Bill Seward. Seward will pass on the recommendation to the borough assembly, which will make the final call on whether to alter the commercial ski areas map.

Haines Borough Code dictates some general guidelines for the committee.

The code states the committee shall be made up of five voting members, including a representative of a local conservation organization, a borough assembly member, a representative from the heliski industry, and two residents randomly selected from those who apply.

Mayor Jan Hill appointed Takshanuk Watershed Council Executive Director Meredith Pochardt to the conservation group seat, Ron Jackson took the assembly seat, Alaska Heliskiing owner Sean Brownell is the industry representative, and the two residents chosen from seven applicants are Lori Smith and Scott Sundberg.

Sundberg owns Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures, or SEABA. That is one of the companies that requested ski map changes. The other is Alaska Heliskiing. That means two of the five seats on the committee that will make a recommendation on the map change requests are owners of the companies that submitted those requests.

“I don’t think there’s a conflict,” said Sundberg. “I’m a concerned citizen. I’m actually very educated on this topic. I was allowed to do it by code as it exists.”

Sundberg said when the committee is discussing the request from his company, he will be speaking as a committee member, not a SEABA representative.

Borough Manager Seward also addressed the matter. He said some people have objected to Sundberg’s position on the committee.

“You know, I’ve actually met with [Sundberg], and I think he’s going to be very objective,” Seward said.

The other residents who applied to serve on the committee were Bruce Bauer, Carolyn Weishahn, Ted Cheney, Mark Smith and Joe Ordonez. Seward says Lori Smith and Sundberg were selected using an online electronic random choice generator.

The committee hasn’t yet started discussing or making decisions about the two map amendment requests.

On Tuesday, members elected Assemblyman Jackson as chair and Brownell as vice chair. They heard from Seward about the three areas he wants them to consider when making a recommendation: safety, commerce and environmental stewardship.

“As you guys well know, the pollution the aircraft generate is noise,” Seward said. “We have a lot of noise pollution from the aircraft. So with that, we want to be good stewards by acknowledging there’s wildlife out there and there’s residents out there and there’s folks competing to use the same area, like backcountry skiers and things of that sort.”

The committee plans to involve Alaska Fish and Game wildlife biologist Kevin White in their discussion. White is working on a study of mountain goat habitat in the Upper Lynn Canal. Research shows mountain goats are sensitive to helicopter noise.

One of the main drivers of Fish and Game’s study is to provide data that will inform decisions on where heliskiing is allowed in the Chilkat Valley.

The committee’s timing isn’t ideal in that regard. White says there will be an initial analysis of the habitat data around February. But the committee’s deadline to make a recommendation is Nov. 30. White says at this point, he’ll only be able to provide general information about goat habitat in the area.

The heliski map committee’s next meeting is set for Oct. 27 at 5 p.m. There, the committee will start delving into the map amendment requests.

View map amendment requests here. (Requests begin on page 33.)