The Haines Assembly reversed itself on a decision to open up a new area to heliisking.
The unexpected change adds new tension to the long-simmering debate about expanding the sport’s footprint in Haines.
Last week, the Haines Assembly backtracked on opening a new heliski area.
The Assembly approved two parcels of land for heliskiing in December. This week, Assembly member Stephanie Scott wanted to remove one — area S2, in the Takhinsha Mountains. She wanted to add three new parcels: S5, AH1, and AH4a.
“The reason I want to eliminate S2 is because it’s an area of high concern to ADF&G,” Scott said. “I want to adhere to their recommendations because they are the experts.
The Department of Fish and Game has weighed in on possible heliski areas because of the industry’s potential to disrupt mountain goat and denning brown bear habitats. The Assembly voted to remove S2, but tensions flared when it came to opening the other three areas to industry. Fish and Game had ranked them of lower concern.
“Since the committee approved of these, since the manager approved of these, I think we need to go along with that point of view,” Scott said.
Some members felt just because areas were ranked lower on ADF&G’s level of concern, didn’t mean they weren’t still concerning.
“All of the zones are of high concern for ADF&G. Those four are just the least damning of all of them, and gun to their head, those would be the ones they’d have to choose,” Assembly member Sean Maidy said.
“I’m not going to support this motion because I don’t trust Fish and Game when they say these areas are of less concern,” member Tom Morphet said.
Member Heather Lende came to the same conclusion for a different reason.
“When we heard from the heliski industry, they said they hadn’t used all their ski days, no one was being turned away. This wasn’t an issue of curtailing an industry,” she said.
In the end, the vote to add three new areas failed four to two.
Scott “Sunny” Sundberg, owns heliski company Southeast East Alaska Backcountry Adventures (SEABA). His company originally requested area S2 be opened to skiing.
“After hearing they had adopted S2, I was hopeful that we were moving beyond some of the old argument and rhetoric that surrounded the heliski map issue,” he says. “I really wasn’t aware that it was going to be back on the table.”
S2 is a 174-acre parcel of land at the bottom of a continuous slope already open for skiing, Sundberg says. He sees it as a buffer that would make his clients safer.
“Our guest safety, the safety of human beings is not as important as potential disturbance to wildlife. And that is upsetting.”
According to Fish and Game’s, S2 is a site of “special concern,” and opening it is likely to disturb mountain goats, and potentially bears.
The Assembly did seem to agree on one thing: it was a good idea to get the heliski industry and the Department of Fish and Game to talk face-to-face about creating a map that will work for wildlife and skiers.
Lende was optimistic.
“We’re in a really good position right now, with ADF&G working with the heliski operators, to potentially come up with a lot more area that they can ski and use without impacting the natural environment,” she said. “And I’m really hopeful that’s going to happen.”
Though no details have been formalized, Sundberg says the heliski industry is open to meeting. They want to find a balance to protect natural resources, too, he says: their business depends on it.
The Borough has been wrestling with whether to open more places — and which places — for heliskiing for more than a year and a half. So far, only one area, AH2a in the Porcupine region, is on its way to being opened.