The heliski map committee’s deadline to complete its task of reviewing proposed amendments is tomorrow is Tuesday, but their work is not done yet.
On Monday, the committee reviewed seven more map amendment proposals, but they still have several changes left to discuss. Committee Chair Ron Jackson said he’ll ask the assembly for an extension. He also said time constraints on making changes to the heliski map should not be so rigid.
“If new information comes in I think we need to revise code to allow that kind of thing coming in,” said Jackson. “No sense in telling the state they can’t give us input on the stuff they manage for three years. I think it’s a flaw in the way code’s written right now, three years to lock everyone out.”
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game submitted comments about the map proposals and biologists have taken part in each meeting, but mountain goat and bear denning studies are still in progress. Those are expected to be completed next year.
Borough Planner Holly Smith is also requesting more time to work with heliski companies to fix mapping errors.
“Even with all of our work in this committee, there’s still going to be some errors and it’s unfortunate that people have to wait for three years before those very simple small changes can get corrected,” said Smith.
She’s suggesting the map committee recommend the borough manager and assembly allow these corrections to be made up to a year after the final map is approved.
At their last meeting before the official cutoff date, the committee voted on the remainder of the Alaska Heliskiing proposals. Committee member Scott Sundberg was absent for all but the last vote. The other members voted unanimously in favor of AH1. That amends the map to extend a previously approved area near the Tsirku River and the Canadian border. Right now, they can’t access the peaks, but this proposal would change that. Fish and Game has no concerns about bears in this area. There are some goat concerns based on a probability model and fall aerial surveys.
The committee also voted unanimously in favor of AH2. That’s a two-part proposal near Flower Mountain and Mount Henry Clay. Committee member Sean Brownell, who submitted the changes, said one part would allow for safer skiing. The other would give them access to the end of the Constantine Metal Resources road. Brownell said that would provide an escape route to get out of bad weather and would allow them to potentially keep fuel stored there.
“That would make less flights back to our heli base which would help reduce noise impacts to residents,” said Brownell.
They all voted in favor of AH3B, a spot that Brownell says would also make skiing safer. He said that’s the motivation behind most of the changes.
That spot, and another section called AH3A are near Porcupine Peak. AH3A was not as straightforward as its counterpart. Brownell said this is a run that could be skied when the weather is not ideal.
“And it just gives us a gentle, mellow, safe slope to ski that’s very close to our base,” said Brownell. “And we fly up and down this canyon all the time.”
But according to Fish and Game, much of the proposed area and some of the already approved area nearby is used by collared goats during the winter. They say it’s important habitat for both goats and denning brown bears. Most of the committee took that to mean heliskiing should not take place there. They voted 3-1 against the proposal. Brownell, who submitted it, voted for it.
“If there’s a gain in safety for my guests I would probably vote yes for it because for me safety is important,” said Brownell.
Although the committee has allowed Brownell to continue voting on his own proposals, it’s the borough attorney’s opinion that both he and Sundberg should recuse themselves from voting on their own proposals. Jackson says that wasn’t the conclusion he and Borough Manager Bill Seward came to when they read the attorney’s opinion.
The group also voted in favor of AH4, a spot that Brownell said is a “prized run.” It’s known as “Storm Troopers,” on Four Winds, and it would be used as a film run. Brownell said they would only ski it 5-7 days a year. There are some mountain goat concerns near this run and Brownell offered to reduce the size of the area to accommodate that. The committee voted to recommend the amended proposal, as long as Brownell works with Fish and Game to ensure there is a big enough buffer between the run and goat locations. A 1,500 meter buffer is recommended.
The final vote was on AH6, an area on Mount Jonathan Ward. That proposal includes Chilkat Indian Village provisional land. Brownell said adding this spot would allow them to watch skiers on the opposite side of the valley.
“That’s kind of how we ski,” said Brownell, “we try to pick places where we can work a valley and work of either side of the valley and watch each other. That’s like one of our protocols wherever that’s possible.”
Committee member Meredith Pochardt and Jackson opposed recommending the area. The other members voted for it, with a March 31 cutoff date to reduce concerns of disturbing denning brown bears.
There are still a handful of Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventure’s proposals that need review. Hoping they will receive a deadline extension, the committee scheduled the next meeting for Friday Dec. 2 at noon.