My turn

Should flightseeing hours in Juneau be limited?

Posted: Sunday, September 24, 2000

Limit needed to benefit wildlife, quality of life

By Aleria Jensen

I'd like to respond to a caller who wondered if the sound of helicopter flights to the glacier bothers the bald eagles and other wildlife and whether anyone cares. Although noise impact is gathering attention in the community, the current City Borough study regarding noise control does not address wildlife impacts. The impact of sound on local wildlife is in desperate need of examination.

This became vivid to me while hiking Heintzleman Ridge. My companion, John, and I paused in the meadow halfway up the mountain to observe an outline behind a jackpine. A black bear slowly emerged into view, chewing on muskeg vegetation. We watched for several minutes before we became aware of a growing background noise. Suddenly a helicopter appeared over the ridge, shattering the silence in its approach. Standing three feet apart, we couldn't hear each other as we tried to yell back and forth over its roar. As it blasted overhead, the bear turned from its feeding and ran into the forest. John, new to Juneau, motioned overhead and asked incredulously, "How do they allow this?" Another helicopter approached. "So much for wildlife protection," he said.

We spent the afternoon on the ridge accompanied by choppers. At one point, several marmots scattered as they swooped overhead. Later as we lay on a rocky pinnacle, one almost grazed a soaring eagle, flying within feet of the outstretched wing of the bird.

In the ongoing community discourse over helicopter traffic, many have felt their own quality of life compromised by the sounds of glacier air traffic while hiking or even in their own homes, as might be true to non-human lives as well. Isolated noise impact studies have been conducted in other areas of Southeast, but investigation is needed here on the heavy traffic corridors around the Mendenhall. Wildlife have no escape from constant helicopter noise traveling to and from the glacier.

As Alaskan citizens, we're stewards of this particular slice of the planet. We have the opportunity to be vigilant caretakers of our ecosystems, our skies, our land, our oceans. While our economy thrives on tourism, while we share Alaska's wilderness with the visitor for the dollar or otherwise, we can also be attentive to resident non-human populations. Alaska's wild animals already struggle against the effects of resource extraction, deforestation and development. We need not add noise to the threats. At the very least, protect Heintzleman Ridge from relentless traffic. We need to eliminate repetitive helicopter traffic over the same corridor of land day after day. We need to establish stronger flight regulations, higher flight ceilings, fewer flights, protected airways. Let me suggest that the FAA and Forest Service specialists responsible for this management go sit on the ridge and listen.

Noise invades our wilderness. Human pressure threatens to dislocate populations. How far will wildlife populations be stretched before we change our behavior? Will our continued air traffic mean marmots abandon Mendenhall ridges and black bears relocate to Canada? Imagine the Thunder Mountain meadows silent, the forests empty.

On behalf of Alaska's wildlife, I would celebrate quieter skies. What we seek is a balance wherein we aren't forced to choose between economics or environment, humans or animals. Conservation is about integration, about establishing creative policy that allows us to share with visitors the beauty of a Southeast Alaskan glacier without frightening a black bear from its feeding or sending marmots diving into their burrows. Rather than a wildlife vs. helicopters headlock, it's about finding a bridge between responsible tourism and peaceful wildlife habitat.

Ask yourself to whom do these forests belong. Whose are the whistles of alpine meadows? Whose are the true wings of Alaskan skies?

Aleria Jensen is a fourth generation Douglasite and a graduate student in the Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development Program at the University of Maryland.

Ban would limit off-season service to locals

By John Lucas

As an owner and chief financial officer of Wings of Alaska Airlines, it is my job to make sure we pay our taxes. As part of the debate over flightseeing in Juneau, I have heard a number of erroneous statements about the industry and the taxes we pay. In light of the ballot initiative and the debate about our operations, I wanted to take a moment to provide a few facts that may be helpful for voters to understand.

The primary reason city sales taxes are not allowed on flightseeing operations has to do with the federal excise tax. The federal government funds the Federal Aviation Administration and capital projects at airports like Juneau by imposing a 7.5 percent excise tax on flights and adds a $2.50 fee for each scheduled service segment. These funds are returned to our community to fund the millions of dollars of capital improvements that have been taking place at the Juneau airport and the payroll of numerous FAA personnel who live here. If the current funding formula for airport improvements is fully funded in the federal FY 2001 budget, Wings of Alaska's Juneau enplanements will result in approximately $300,000 in grant funds for capital projects at the airport.

Maybe it would be helpful to know what taxes and fees a small company like Wings pays in a year. Let's take a look at 1999: Federal excise tax-segment fees $194,300; federal fuel tax $49,100; federal payroll taxes $288,200; state fuel tax $13,950; state employment security taxes $50,300; sales tax on fuel $21,850; sales tax on facility-aircraft lease $9,600; airport PFC fees $36,200; city real property tax $16,400; city personal property tax $19,200 for a total of $699,100.

The above taxes are paid whether the company makes a profit or not. If we are fortunate enough to have a profit at the end of the year, the combined federal and state income tax burden amounts to another 40 percent of what's left.

There is more involved than just tourists in regard to our operations. Reviewing our financial statements Oct. 1 through April 30, the seven months we are without any visitor-related revenue, I've found that we have lost an average of $460,000 during these periods over each of the last two years. These losses are representative of our continuing commitment to providing the year-around scheduled and chartered service to the many communities we serve and to provide stable and continuous employment to our valued employees in Juneau and our outlying stations. Without the revenues available to us from summer visitors and related activities, we would not consider, nor could we afford to continue, this commitment to Juneau or the surrounding communities. While some level of service would continue, it would be a substantial reduction from current levels.

Our family at Wings believes there are tremendous, positive, economic impacts to the community as a result of our downtown flightseeing activities. Juneau is the Capital City and commercial hub for the northern Panhandle. We think it's important for our neighbors to be certain of the impacts that may occur as a result of attempts to limit our operations.

At Wings, we employ 55 people on a year-round basis. This number grows to 90 in the summers. About 20 of those are residents of the outlying communities we serve with the balance employed in Juneau. All of our employees, except for about nine seasonal pilots, are residents of Juneau. Our annual payroll will exceed $2 million this year. Most of our year-round employees are committed to their respective communities and own homes. Taku Lodge has 11 employees. Together, we provide a large economic tax base and support numerous organizations throughout the region.

At Wings we will continue to work with the citizens of Juneau to improve the way we do business and the impact we have on the community. However, the initiative being circulated to limit the daily flight hours and to establish a no-flight day, threatens the economic viability of Wings' operations.

We think it's important for Juneau residents to know the facts before they vote on any initiative seeking to limit one industry in our community.

John Lucas, CPA, is an owner and chief financial officer at Wings of Alaska. He was born and raised in Juneau. He can be reached at john@wingsofalaska.com.



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