A controversial U.S. Forest Service decision that sets the number of helicopter landings on the Juneau Icefield for the next five years has been met with eight appeals.
Juneau District Ranger Pete Griffin decided in June to keep the number of helicopter landing permits steady through 2004 and allow 5 percent annual increases in 2005, 2006 and 2007.
The Forest Service now authorizes 19,039 landings a year on the Icefield, but helicopter companies haven't reached that limit. Last year, helicopters landed 17,783 times on the icefield.
The decision was appealed this month by the four companies that land on the icefield - Coastal Helicopters, TEMSCO Helicopters, Era Helicopters and NorthStar Trekking - and by local residents Becky Carls, Karla Hart and Betty Lou Hart. The residents asked the agency to decrease the number of landings allowed. The eighth appeal was filed by Cruise Control, Lynn Canal Conservation and the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.
The decision's reliance on proposed satellite heliports as a way to reduce noise, the impact of helicopters on wildlife, and concern about flight routes and safety were among the issues raised by the appellants.
Alaska Regional Forester Denny Bschor is expected to rule next month on the appeals. In the interim, the helicopter companies will continue to operate under existing permits, Griffin said.
"In preparing an appeal response, we look at all of the appeals, sort out the issues raised in the appeals and tell the regional forester how we handled the concerns in our (environmental impact statement) and in our decision," he said. "He'll have a final determination on Sept. 26."
Jim Wilson, president of Coastal Helicopters, expressed concerns in his appeal about inaccurate computer-generated maps depicting mountain goat habitat. Coastal also objected to new mountain goat approach paths.
As an example, the Forest Service decision requires that a helicopter approach a landing spot from the center of the glacier if it is comes within a mile of mountain goat kidding areas between May 15 and June 15. The helicopter also would need to stay below the elevation of goats if terrain and weather allow.
"The Forest Service is trying to designate methods of approaching landing sites and, to me, that is taking authority away from the (Federal Aviation Administration)," Wilson said. "The FAA controls the airspace and you don't want two agencies telling us where to go."
Setting up approach paths without consulting with helicopter companies creates a safety risk, he added. Era and TEMSCO voiced similar concerns about flight safety in their appeals.
The appeal from Cruise Control, Lynn Canal Conservation and SEACC addresses the impact of noise on residents, recreation and wildlife, said Cruise Control member Robert Reges. In the Forest Service decision, an increase in helicopter landings is tied to a decrease in noise through alternative heliports, but there's no guarantee a heliport will be built in three years, Reges said.
"Anyone with an engineering or construction background knows it's going to take more than three years," he said. "It's arbitrary and capricious. You ought to wait until the darn thing is built and the goal you set - a reduction in noise - is achieved."
The groups also object to the agency's reluctance to regulate flight paths and altitudes to limit noise over recreational and residential areas, while the agency regulates flights to protect mountain goats, Reges said.
"You can either do this or not," he said. "We've found citations in regulations and other Forest Service decisions that show they do have the authority to indirectly regulate flight paths and operators."
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