The U.S. Forest Service has extended its helicopter glacier landing permits for the 2001 tourist season, keeping the number of permitted landings at 19,039.
The actual number of glacier landings by the four competing helicopter companies the past several years near Juneau has been 16,000 to 17,000, said District Ranger Pete Griffin.
The decision keeps the status quo while the Forest Service helps mediate noise concerns caused by the helicopter tour flights, Griffin said.
The Forest Service hopes to have an environmental impact statement on the noise issues completed along with a decision on the number of future landings by late spring. But that will come too late to put into action for the 2001 tourist season.
The Forest Service decision doesn't sit well with Deborah Vogt with the Peace and Quiet Coalition. The group is involved in the mediation efforts with the flightseeing industry and the Forest Service among other parties.
"I am just sort of shocked they didn't take this up with the mediation group," Vogt said.
She had been hoping the mediation process would be finished in time for the industry to effect change by the summer tourist season, preferably with noise levels substantially lower than the 2000 season, which Vogt described as "way too high."
Mediation efforts are separate from the Forest Service's decision to keep the same number of permitted landings. The mediation efforts include a number of interested parties, some of which have enforcement authority besides the Forest Service, Griffin said. The group's recommendations probably will be included in the environmental impact statement, he said.
The mediation is in its design phase, meaning the group still has to decide whether the topic can be mediated, and if so, which issues will be covered, who will be at the table and what the ground rules are, said Lois Schwennesen, the group's mediator.
The group's next meeting is scheduled for Dec. 4, and if it chooses to mediate the noise dispute, mediation can theoretically begin the next day, she said. Schwennesen said she thinks the group will choose mediation, and a noise-reduction package should be ready by March, in time to take effect for the summer season.
The extension of Forest Service landing permits doesn't affect the four helicopter companies' commitment to the mediation process, they said in a prepared statement.
The companies are disappointed that the glacier landing permits have remained at the same levels for four years, not allowing them to grow their business, but they believe progress was made to reduce noise during the 2000 season, the statement said. The mediation effort may lead to other ways to reduce noise further, it said.
Noise from flightseeing operations inspired an October ballot measure in Juneau in which petitioners sought restricted flight times and other concessions by the flight tour industry. The proposition also would have limited the city's ability to study the noise issue. It was soundly defeated by 70 percent of the voters.
Helicopters are permitted to land on six glaciers around Juneau: the Taku and Norris glaciers east of town, the Lemon and Mendenhall glaciers on the edge of Juneau, and the Herbert and Gilkey glaciers northeast of town.
The flightseeing industry said there were fewer landings last summer than in 1999 because of poor weather.
"It was a pretty nasty summer last year," said Amy Windred, Juneau base manager for Era Helicopters.
Era, which had a little more than 6,000 landings last season, lost about 300 flights because of the weather, she said.
TEMSCO Helicopters also had weather trouble. The company canceled a lot more customers than previous years mainly because of weather, said pilot Andy Thomas.
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