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Icefield tours may change

Forest Service seeks input on number of glacier landings

Posted: Wednesday, July 18, 2001

The number of helicopter tour landings on Juneau Icefield glaciers could range from none to 31,000 annually in five years under a set of alternatives proposed by the U.S. Forest Service.

The agency is accepting comments on a plan that has seven options for helicopter glacier tours in Juneau. The Forest Service currently grants permits to four Juneau companies for slightly more than 19,000 landings a year, although only about 17,000 landings occur.

The alternatives range from not authorizing landings to allowing a 10 percent increase a year for the next five years, for a total of 31,000 by 2006, according to Juneau District Ranger Pete Griffin.

The agency has not picked a preferred alternative.

"We did that for a specific reason. We want folks to look at all the alternatives and tell us what they like and don't like about all of them," Griffin said.

Other alternatives would reduce landings to 1994 levels of about 12,000 or increase landings by 5 percent a year to 24,000 landings. Other options would keep the number of landings at current levels.

The plan also includes a range of mitigation measures that cover restrictions on operating hours, days of operation and landing areas.

The agency is sending out the draft environmental impact statement to interested parties this week. The document compares the alternatives and provides background about the issue. The project started in January 1999 and Griffin said the agency plans to issue a final decision in January 2002.

During the initial phase of the plan, the agency heard concerns from the public about helicopter noise and its impact on Juneau residents, wildlife and recreation, said project manager Ellen Hall of Foster Wheeler Environmental Corp., the Forest Service contractor working on the study.

The agency has limited jurisdiction over helicopters in Juneau but can control the number of icefield landings, she said.

"We've done as much as we could do to try to address people's concerns given the range of authority the Forest Service actually has," she said.

The deadline to submit comments on the proposal is Sept. 24 and the Forest Service plans a public meeting Sept. 6 in Juneau. The more information people provide about why they like or don't like an alternative, the better, Hall said.

"When people comment, one other real important thing to keep in mind is whether they feel we've addressed the appropriate issues," she said.

The plan proposes different buffers around wildlife habitat and trails, and addresses recreational activities such a snowmobiles and dogsleds, she said.

Meanwhile, city consultants continue work to assess possible sites for alternative heliports in Juneau, said senior environmental manager McKie Campbell of Michael Baker Jr. Inc. The planners have identified 30 sites and are in the process of narrowing them down, he said.

"We're working with the (city's) Community Development Department to establish the number of homes affected by the noise footprint of each site," he said.

The project also will evaluate sites for size, land availability, infrastructure, terrain, weather, driving distances and other issues. The intent is to pick a site north of downtown and one south of downtown, although that doesn't mean planners will able to find an ideal spot, Campbell said.

"It will be more difficult to find a site south of town that meets the criteria," he said.

The Forest Service plan should be available on the Internet by the end of the week at www.fs.fed.us/r10/tongass/planning/helilanding. Print copies also will be available from the Juneau Ranger District when printing is complete.

Joanna Markell can be reached at joannam@juneauempire.com.



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