Ski industry representatives are calling new rules for heliskiing unveiled by the state Department of Natural Resources a big, and perhaps crippling, blow to their businesses.
DNR Commissioner Pat Pourchot signed a special land-use designation for commercial helicopter use in the Haines State Forest, adding new restrictions to rules first proposed in September.
It's the first time the state has used a special-use designation to regulate commercial helicopter use, defining heliski areas, flight paths, dates, times and permissible volumes of use.
Left out were many provisions heliskiers called for, including an extended season for front-range peaks easily accessible from the heliport at 33 Mile Haines Highway. Heliski companies asked to use the area until the end of April and to have filming and competitive events exempt from a 1,000 skier-day season cap.
The Special Use Designation (SUD) cuts an end-of-season weather extension for film crews from 15 days to three, and removes the Chilkoot Valley from future use.
Although state planners said the plan protects wildlife and allows heliskiers adequate time and space in which to work, skiers say the plan is too restrictive and likely will drive them out of business.
"This pretty much shuts the industry down. We've already heard from several clients that told us they're not coming back," said Southeast Backcountry Adventures general manager Scott Sundberg.
Sundberg said a provision to shut down front-range peaks March 31 will eliminate his company's potential to turn a profit. Quick access from the 33 Mile heliport is critical, he said. "In a good year, March 31 is about our break-even point in the season. Up to that point, we're paying for our operations. If we would fly the shorter distances, then it would help us get out of the red."
Closing the area when many of his company's clients traditionally book ski trips forces longer, more expensive flights to less desirable terrain, he said.
"The majority of our bookings are between March 30 and April 15. It's when everyone shows up, because they're getting thawing conditions down south. Alaska is kind of the last place they go."
One company, Utah-based Teton Gravity Research, said Wednesday it won't return for a fifth season of filmmaking. TRG has spent up to 28 days in Haines each of the past four years producing snowboard and extreme skiing videos.
Spokesman Jim Conway said TGR also has dropped Haines from a list of possible filming locations for a planned NBC television show on snowboarding that would have brought a crew of 65 to Haines. "When we got the contract, Haines was one of the first locations that came to mind, but now we're thinking Jackson Hole instead."
Conway said area and time restrictions in the SUD make working in Haines too financially risky. "Under the current conditions, we assume too much risk in coming here. Basically what they've done is cut out our traditional staging areas."
Conway said area restrictions after March 31 eliminate a standard ski-filming practice, to retreat in stages from bad weather.
"With the front range closed, you have to go deep into the mountains, and if you have weather move in, you can't retreat in stages because the areas behind you are closed. When you can't do that kind of hopscotch shuttle, you risk getting stuck out there if the weather closes in."
He said TGR is looking at filming in Atlin, British Columbia, this spring instead of Haines. He said his company is pulling away from considering Alaska locations for future projects.
"We're not going to move into any small towns in Alaska if we see a strong organized environmental group opposing us. Last year we did a lot of reconnaissance in Haines to find new areas to work, and that money was wasted. It makes it hard to invest in an area."
Sundberg said he's planning to appeal the SUD regulations in Superior Court and ask the incoming Murkowski administration to reopen the issue. "I'd like to see them include economic feasibility in the decision making."
A DNR spokesperson said heliskiers' protests over the SUD regulations have taken the agency by surprise.
Planner Ray Bolger said he thought the department had arrived at a compromise that would enable heliskiers to continue to operate. "It's hard to get an accurate read. We sat down with them and tried to enter frank discussions about what they needed. The plan as we presented it to them gave them room to operate."
Bolger said decisions to include filming in the 1,000-skier day limit, cut extra filming days after April 30, and restrict heliskiing in the upper Chilkoot were based on input from the city's Tourism Planning Committee, the borough's Commercial Helicopter Service Area board, a 2001 advisory vote and public testimony.
"We felt like those things were hashed out locally and the decision was based in part on that."
Borough helicopter board chair Carolyn Weishahn said the state did the best it could to reach compromise. "The issues that were important to highway people were reconsidered in a responsible way. DNR made a big effort to respond to local needs. We'll see whether the changes reflect what the concerns are. A lot of that will be dealt with in the permitting process."
Weishahn said she doesn't buy claims that the area and season restrictions will drive heliskiers out of business. "If they use the flight paths provided, they won't have to go more than 20 miles further. I don't know what they mean when they say they can't make it with that."
Other new provisions in the final SUD include: elimination of proposed summer helicopter operations to a Glacier camp in the Takhin Valley, expansion of the allowable heliski area on the backside of the Takhinsha Mountains, and prohibition of the use of explosives for avalanche control.
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