State withdraws helicopter regulations near Haines

Posted: Thursday, May 27, 2004

HAINES - Commercial helicopter restrictions ready to go into effect on state land in the Chilkat Valley have been withdrawn by the state Department of Natural Resources.

The decision announced last week voids rules on helicopter skiing areas, times and volume formulated through two years of public meetings and state agency review, which angered some Haines officials.

"All the two and a half years of work of the borough Assembly, the City Council has gone right down the tube into the trash. ... This is a slap in the face from the Murkowski administration," Haines Borough Assemblyman Norm Smith told the Chilkat Valley News.

Heliski operators will not need permits to conduct business on state land next spring. The decision by DNR commissioner Tom Irwin does not affect permitting rules for federal land regulated by the Bureau of Land Management.

The state regulations, which defined a "special use designation" for commercial helicopter use, were never formally adopted. The document was finished during the transition between the outgoing administration of Gov. Tony Knowles and current Gov. Frank Murkowski.

State officials said the decision to lift the regulations comes on the heels of recent lobbying by industry supporters, and reflects Murkowski's philosophy that state land be open for business use, said Natural Resources spokeswoman Nancy Welch.

"This isn't a reversal," she said. "With a new administration, the commissioners and governor heard a lot from the people and the industry that the regulations were too restrictive. The administration is very interested in access."

Welch said DNR acted on a recommendation from Al Clough, Department of Community and Economic Development deputy commissioner. After meetings with counterparts in Natural Resources, Clough determined that the regulations were "overly restrictive and present a significant barrier to this type of economic development in the Haines Borough."

DNR lands specialist Bob Loeffler said the state economic development department, which played a minimal role in formulation of the regulations, was asked to step in by the Murkowski administration.

"Economic concerns were not adequately addressed," he said. "In general, the administration supports increased use of state land for economic development, and the regulations didn't achieve that."

Loeffler said the borough can regulate helicopter use through local planning and zoning. "The borough can take this on," he said.

Clough, who also met with Haines economic development director Robert Venables over heliskiing and other business issues, said the heliski regulations "present a significant barrier to this type of economic development for the Haines Borough."

"I personally found some of the regulations restrictive. Standoff distances (from restricted areas) were inconsistent with other areas in the state, and the timing and volume restrictions were definitely a throttle on economic activity," Clough said.

Welch said the decision did not take into account protection of winter goat range. The regulations had included Fish and Game Department recommendations for area restrictions to protect goat herds above Chilkat Lake and a no-fly goat monitoring area above Chilkoot Lake.

"We really didn't address the goat issue. We need to look at that. We'll remain open to Fish and Game's input," Welch said.

Heliski operator Sean Brownell said the news that the state was dropping its regulations was welcome.

"It's pretty cool. We didn't abide by the regulations this year. There's no way we could have operated under the guidelines of the SUD. Our only option would have been not to comply with it."

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