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U.S. Forest Service proposals to set the number of helicopter landings on the Juneau Icefield for the next five years have sparked a range of responses from community members with a focus on access, growth and noise.
According to the draft plan, the alternatives range from not authorizing landings to allowing a 10 percent increase a year for the next five years. Three options would keep the number of landings near the current level and one would decrease landings 9 percent annually. The draft environmental impact statement does not have a preferred alternative.
Icefield landings grew an average of 9 percent a year between 1982 and 1999. They have ranged between 16,000 to 17,000 since 1997, according to the draft plan. The Forest Service currently grants permits to four Juneau companies for slightly more than 19,000 landings a year.
Just as the current number of landings depends on the market and weather, so too will growth, Era Helicopters base manager Amy Windred said.
"My gut feeling is that we're stabilizing a little bit. If we do see growth, it will be minor growth," she said.
Bob Englebrecht, president of NorthStar Trekking, said he hopes the plan will refine the current guidelines rather than bring wholesale change.
"Obviously as an operator, we're not going to want to see a reduction in what's allowed. A reasonable amount of growth should be allowed and is appropriate," he said. "Through the various things we're doing with routes and altitudes, the future for quieter aircraft and some of the operations that might be able to be operated out of satellite heliports, it makes it reasonable to accommodate some of the growth."
Restricting the days of the week helicopters can land would limit access to public lands, and limiting hours for flights might not decrease noise but instead concentrate activity, Englebrecht said.
Operators have been working with the city on routes, flight times and altitudes through voluntary measures, said Tim McDonnell, vice president of tours and marketing for TEMSCO Helicopters. While a proposal to prohibit all landings would be drastic, meetings with the community and the Forest Service should help bring about a solution, he said.
"It might be moved around a little bit in terms of what will work for everybody. We really won't determine anything until we go over the EIS as a group and as a community," he said.
Ray Preston of the Peace and Quiet Coalition said he was glad that one of the Forest Service's alternatives would bring a reduction in landings, but objected to alternatives that would keep things at current levels. Limiting hours and days of the week for landings would help, he added.
The draft study suggests a "noise budget" to encourage operators to use new, quiet technology as a possible option. For a given number of landings, an equivalent amount of noise would be established based on the noise generated by the A-Star helicopter, now used for many tours. A noise budget would be community-based solution, not something imposed directly by the Forest Service, Juneau District Ranger Pete Griffin said.
The National Park Service has recommended establishing noise budgets for air tours in the Grand Canyon, and the Seattle Airport has a budget that requires airlines to reduce their share of noise every year.
Preston said a noise budget would be difficult to monitor and enforce. There is no such thing as a truly quiet helicopter, he said.
"The Forest Service and the city dance all around the issue. They think they can do something without really doing anything," he said. "The only way to reduce the noise is that you've got to reduce the noise."
Juneau Assembly member Jim Powell, chairman of the city's Planning and Policy Committee, which handles tourism issues, said the city plans to work with the Forest Service while consultants identify sites this summer for alternative heliports. Some of the sites under consideration are on Forest Service land, he said.
"We just can't reduce the number of helicopters, we need to look at alternative heliports," he said. The Forest Service "holds the lion's share of regulation on this. The number of permits is a huge control and needs to be blended with local concerns."
For the Juneau Group of the Sierra Club, concerns center on the effect of helicopters on mountain goats, bears and other wildlife, along with noise along flight paths elsewhere in the borough, chairman Mark Rorick said.
"We have to deal with what's presented to us and that's the landing permits on the icefield," he said. "The devil is in the details."
The deadline to submit comments on the draft plan is Sept. 24. The Forest Service plans a public meeting on Sept. 6. The draft plan is available on the Internet at www.fs.fed.us/r10/tongass/planning/helilanding. Print copies are available at local libraries.
Joanna Markell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.