Chilkat Guides owner Bart Henderson says he'll use a high-speed catamaran next summer to take cruise ship passengers from Skagway to Glacier Point, near Haines, eliminating the airplane noise that has sparked a lawsuit.
Two environmental groups and a Haines neighborhood association are suing the state Department of Natural Resources over the Haines company's tour in the Haines State Forest.
The lawsuit, filed Friday, contends DNR's list of allowable day-uses of state land is an invalid regulation because it didn't go through a formal rulemaking process with a public hearing. The list exempts certain activities from permit requirements.
Chilkat Guides has a permit to store four motorized canoes used for a lake crossing, but otherwise operates unfettered on the unpopulated western side of Chilkat Inlet.
The lawsuit asks a Superior Court judge to impose unspecified limits on commercial activity in the Davidson Glacier area until DNR follows proper rulemaking procedures. Glacier Point, at the foot of the Davidson, has a landing strip.
Henderson said the noise issue will be moot next year, at least as far as his company is concerned, because he has contracted with Klukwan Inc. for construction of a $1.5 million high-speed catamaran that will almost entirely replace chartered flights to Glacier Point.
For three summers, the airplane flights have disturbed some residents of the rural Chilkat Peninsula, home to a large number of environmentalists. An estimated 10,000 tourists went to Glacier Point this year.
Friends of Glacier Point, formed in response to the tours, argues traditional users of the Davidson Glacier area have been driven out by the commercial venture. The group twice has unsuccessfully appealed a state permit for canoe storage in the forest, not because it objects to the canoes but because that was the only matter under state review.
Henderson said the effect of nullifying the DNR's list of generally allowed day-uses of state land would be to keep a great many people out, with "huge, very far-reaching implications ramifications that would make these folks pretty unpopular."
"A professional photographer couldn't wander across state lands and take a photograph any more," he said.
That was disputed by attorney Tom Waldo of the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund in Juneau, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of Friends of Glacier Point, Lynn Canal Conservation and Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. Waldo said there would be a "void" if the regulation is struck down, as there would be no underlying requirement in state law for day-users to get permits.
Henderson also dismissed the argument that people who have used Glacier Point are prevented from doing so because of the tours. "No one is stopping them from going to Glacier Point."
Private landholders there have commercial plans, however, and Glacier Point won't ever again be the quiet, off-the-beaten-path spot it was after logging activity stopped 30 years ago, he said.
While the state has 40 days to file a formal response to the lawsuit, a settlement could be reached out of court if DNR and Chilkat Guides are willing to negotiate, Waldo said. He didn't say what he would ask them to agree to.
Waldo said he was aware of discussions about a high-speed catamaran before the lawsuit was filed but didn't know a deal had been reached. The suit was filed specifically on Dec. 1 to pre-empt any argument that a 30-day appeal period had run out since new DNR Commissioner Pat Pourchot rejected the latest appeal on canoe storage, he said. Pourchot rejected that appeal Nov. 1.
Henderson's comments are encouraging, Waldo said. "If that (catamaran) happens, it does go a very long way toward addressing the concerns of people in Haines."
But Henderson said he's not in a compromising mood. After honoring his pledge not to run Sunday tours this year, except for two dates to which he was committed by contract, he said: "We got no response, no positive feedback, no one saying 'thank you.' We got nothing but crap, so we won't do it again next year."
Bill McAllister can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org