More than a year after a Haines advisory committee began working through proposed amendments to the borough’s heliski map, the assembly is set to decide on changes. The group met Monday to review requests for added terrain.
This was a chance for the assembly to prepare for the final decisions it’s set to make next month.
The heliski map delineates where local companies are allowed to operate.
Map amendment proposals were submitted in May of last year. An advisory committee met to go over the requests and make recommendations to the assembly in October and November of last year.
But the assembly delayed its decisions for a couple reasons: questions about conflict of interest and wildlife concerns.
Two members of the heliski industry who submitted amendment requests were on the committee. And, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game was not yet finished with studies of mountain goat and brown bear habitat in the area.
ADF&G biologists presented the completed data this September. They brought that information to the assembly at Monday’s meeting.
“Really you could consider this as a three-species model. You’ve got helicopter skiing, you’ve got bears and you’ve got goats,” said wildlife biologist Anthony Crupi. “You could do this same thing, where if you knew where the prime ski runs were and you knew where the prime habitats were, you could build a model for all three of those, combine it all, and have a place of high-conflict, high conservation concerns, low-conflict, low conservation concerns. So ideally I think you could develop a place that is going to have minimal impact to wildlife, maximum benefit to skiers.”
These studies of mountain goats and brown bears in the Chilkat Valley look at critical winter habitat. Research from previous studies in other places is used to understand how helicopter noise can affect the animals.
Crupi said research has shown helicopter disturbance poses long-term effects on reproduction and survival for brown bears and mountain goats.
Fish and Game used known location data from aerial surveys and tracking goats with GPS collars to predict key habitat, and displayed that information on maps. Maps include a 1,500 meter buffer recommended by the Northern Wild Sheep and Goat Council.
About 37 percent of bear den habitat from survey areas with approved terrain falls within areas already approved for heliskiing. Fish and Game says proposed amendments would affect an additional 5 percent.
For goats, 33 percent of winter habitat in the survey areas with approved terrain was found to be in current heliski terrain. Adding proposed amendments would increase that by 3 percent. Though, the Fish and Game study finds that could be higher in certain areas.
There are four proposed amendments that carry the least concern for Fish and Game. Borough Planner Holly Smith, who has been working with the heliski maps throughout the most recent amendment process, said if those were accepted by the assembly, it would add 591 acres of terrain – less than a square mile.
Smith said Bureau of Land Management and Chilkat Indian Village land has been removed from the map, because they’re not regulated by the borough.
Scott Sundberg co-owns the heliski company Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures. He said some of the changes are aimed at increasing safety. Others, he said, would increase terrain skiable on poor weather days.
“Quite honestly if you look at what we’ve actually asked for, SEABA, it’s a very small geographic addition to what actually exists,” said Sundberg. “So in some ways we’re trying to make it safer. What it does to us is if we think there’s a probability of high risk, because we don’t have that piece of the puzzle, then we have to abandon that terrain, which just makes that terrain smaller. And reduces the product.”
Sundberg said some of the locations aren’t skied very often. He pointed to one area he estimated is operated in about 10 times a year.
“That’s a noise disturbance of say, a helicopter goes by and they hear something and say ‘oh what was that.’ That was a noise and they’re just going to adjust to it or whatever they’re going to do,” says Sundberg. “What about the other nine or 12 months a year when there’s rock slides or avalanches.”
The assembly is set to decide on map amendment proposals at a regular meeting next month.