Three groups have appealed a U.S. Forest Service decision to permit more than 19,000 helicopter glacier landings near Juneau this year.
They are asking the agency's regional personnel to reverse the decision on the grounds that no environmental assessment was forthcoming when Juneau District Ranger Pete Griffin issued the fiat in November.
The appellants are: Cruise Control, a Juneau group formed in 1999 to address tourism impact; Lynn Canal Conservation, a Haines-based environmental organization; and the Juneau Group of the Sierra Club.
At the time of his decision, Griffin said the agency hoped to have an environmental impact statement on the helicopter noise issue completed by late spring 2001, but that that would come too late to put into action for the 2001 tourist season.
"Griffin wants to extend the current environmental impact statement, and we want the Forest Service to understand that in proceeding without an environmental assessment, he's in error," said the Sierra Club's Mark Rorick.
Rorick said he had gone through an "inch-thick" Forest Service file of citizens' comments about flightseeing noise and that "any reasonable person seeing the file would conclude that something needs to be done."
Griffin referred questions about the appeal to Forest Service regional personnel.
Tongass spokesman Mike Weber said Thursday a ruling on the appeal would be issued within a week. A typical appeal of a National Environmental Policy Act decision could take 45 days to answer, Weber said. But, contrary to the appeal's claim, Griffin's was not a NEPA decision and will be answered directly, he said.
Rorick said Griffin's decision ignored the Tongass Land Management Plan's guidelines for recreation and tourism. Much of the permit area is categorized as semi-primitive and for non-motorized use "where people should expect to experience solitude and not be subjected constantly to the motorized world," he said.
According to the appeal, current standards allow for a maximum of 10 landings per day at glacier sites, "and then only if compatible with the objectives of the area."
But the appeal says Griffin's order allows 7,354 landings at the Norris glacier and a similar number at the Herbert glacier, which - given a season of 140 days - works out to more than 50 daily landings at each of the two sites.
Helicopters are permitted to land on six glaciers around Juneau: the Taku and Norris glaciers to the east, the Lemon and Mendenhall glaciers on the edge of town, and the Herbert and Gilkey glaciers to the northeast.
The actual annual number of glacier landings by the four competing helicopter companies for the past several years has been 16,000 to 17,000, according to the Forest Service.
Griffin's order contained no mention about how the helicopter landings would comply with the plan for the Tongass drawn up in 1997 and modified on appeal in March 1999, according to the appeal.
"Because the last substantive review of helicopter operations took place in 1995, (Griffin's) review could not possibly have considered current standards and guidelines," the appeal said.
"The 1995 environmental impact statement clearly recognized that the (flightseeing) noise was going to get worse in five years," said Juneau attorney Deborah Vogt.
Vogt is a member of the Peace and Quiet Coalition, a group formed last year to push a voter initiative that aimed to reduce flightseeing noise. She and Cruise Control founder Robert Reges Jr., also an attorney, wrote the appeal.
"That EIS expired in 1999 and it is clear they ought to have issued another EIS before they issued the permits last year," Vogt said. "In the meantime, they're naked as far as I'm concerned."
The appeal further claims that Griffin "dismissed our community well-being and stability with the insufferable statement that 'the only acoustic impact to humans from helicopter sounds is that of annoyance to people ....' As if annoyance is irrelevant, though his own noise study showed that nearly three-quarters of forest users would experience it."
Vogt was unsure how the appellants would proceed if the appeal is denied, but said the case could be taken to U.S. District Court, depending on the availability of funding.
Fernand Chandonnet can be reached at email@example.com.
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