As the U.S. Forest Service prepares for a public discussion Thursday about the number of helicopter landings allowed on the Juneau Icefield, representatives on both sides of the issue have indicated it could land in court.
The agency released a draft environmental impact statement in July with seven alternatives. The number of icefield landings could range from 11,881 to 30,662 annually in five years, according to the document.
The document also includes suggestions about hours and days landings would be allowed, new areas, wildlife and tours. For the past three years, the number of helicopter landings on the icefield has ranged between 16,000 and 17,000.
Representatives from the four helicopter operators that fly to the icefield spoke to the Juneau Chamber of Commerce on Friday about the proposals. In general, the operators favor the two alternatives in the plan that would allow growth in the number of landings over a five-year period, said Bob Englebrecht, president of NorthStar Trekking. One would allow 5 percent growth annually, the other would allow 10 percent growth.
"Part of it is to look at what's the demand for the activity going on and what's reasonable capacity or limit," he said.
Englebrecht said limiting landings from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., as suggested in one alternative, would be a problem for his business, which operates longer tours. Currently, landings are allowed from 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Dot Wilson, co-owner of Coastal Helicopters, said tourism is important to her company. Coastal flies about 12,000 passengers a year, of which 4,500 are tourists. The national forest belongs to everyone, she said.
"They love to see the glacier. It's really their glacier also," she said.
Amy Windred, base manager for Era Helicopters, said what happens next will depend on the Forest Service's decision. The result could be appealed or end up in court, she said. The larger issue is tourism as a whole in Juneau, she said.
"We're a very, very visible component of it," she said.
The four companies account for about 200 jobs in Juneau, TEMSCO's Tim McDonnell said. According to the draft environmental impact statement, gross revenue from helicopter landing tours is worth about $21 million annually or about $170,000 per day May through September.
But Mark Rorick of the Juneau Group of the Sierra Club said the Forest Service's economic analysis is inadequate. It doesn't account for businesses, property values and nonmechanized recreation that are affected adversely by helicopter noise, he said.
Additionally, the Forest Service could do more to address flight paths, he said.
"Leverage should and can be applied to get voluntary compliance on a more limited number of flight paths than already exist," he said.
Karla Hart, who presented a draft "Citizens' Alternative" to the city last month, suggested landings be capped at 11,881, the level of 1994 use. Her proposal would include limits on landing hours and cap the number of landings per day at 93, Sunday through Friday.
While limits on the number of landings are important, Hart said some people are becoming frustrated.
"This is the third (Forest Service study) we've been through on the helicopters and we haven't really gotten any satisfaction on the process before," she said. "I don't see anything is going to be resolved through this process. The only resolution will be through the legal system."
The Forest Service is sponsoring a meeting about helicopter landings from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday at the Guest House Suites conference facility next to the Juneau Airport. Juneau District Ranger Pete Griffin said Forest Service officials will answer questions about the draft EIS and testimony will be recorded.
The deadline to submit written comments is Sept. 24. The Forest Service expects to release a final decision in January.
Joanna Markell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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