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Comments sought on heli-skiing in state parks

Posted: November 15, 2012 - 3:26pm

In summer, thousands of visitors hike, raft, fish and camp in Kachemak Bay State Park and Kachemak Bay Wilderness State Park. Many of them make their own way there by private boat, but others arrive through water taxis, air taxis and guides, all permitted under Alaska State Parks regulations.

In the winter, though, the bay quiets down, with only a few water taxi operators running. Local backcountry skiers have long known that the slopes of the Kenai Mountains offer awesome runs — runs earned the hard way, through muscling up mountains.

That could change under two proposals to run commercial helicopter skiing in the two parks. 

One company, Kenai Heli Ski, a Glenwood Springs, Colo., operation proposing to fly out of Seldovia, offers tours only the 1-percent could even dream of, such as a week of skiing, lodging, meals and guiding for the sweet price of $70,000 — 15 percent off if booked by today. 

A smaller-scale proposal by Jeffrey Lee of Seldovia would be helicopter assisted backcountry skiing with a series of huts.

Those proposals have prompted the Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation to solicit comments on if commercial helicopter skiing, also called heli skiing, should be allowed in Kachemak Bay State Park and Kachemak Bay Wilderness State Park. Comments are not being taken on specific proposals, but on the idea itself.

“We’re not asking folks to evaluate the permit applications,” said Jack Blackwell, superintendent of the Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound area parks, including Kachemak Bay. “We’re trying to gather some input on whether or not it should occur in the park.”

Also open for comment is if people think heli skiing is OK, what conditions should be set? Should heli skiing be limited to certain areas and certain times? Should the number of landings be limited? The number of operators?

Under the Kachemak Bay State Park and Wilderness Park management plans, Ben Ellis, the director of the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation, can issue permits for heli skiing if it does not adversely affect the parks’ natural and cultural resources, protects the park from pollution, maintains and protects public use values, and does not adversely affect the public safety, health and welfare.

Even if Ellis allows heli skiing, it wouldn’t open it to unlimited use.

“I think it’s likely we would limit the number of permits that would be issued for it,” Blackwell said. “If we go in that direction, we would likely issue a request for proposals to issue a competitive park-use permit.”

Blackwell said aircraft already are allowed to land in Kachemak Bat State Park on salt water, on gravel bars and on Emerald Lake, China Poot Lake, Hazelle Lake and Petroff Lake, except for practice landings. Aircraft is allowed in Kachemak Bay State Wilderness Park on salt water and salt water beaches or where authorized by the director.

In Thompson Pass near Valdez, heli skiing already is allowed at a state recreational site near Blueberry Lake. Heli skiing operators stage out of that area under a permit.

One concern about heli skiing in the parks is the effect on mountain goats. Areas in the park are popular with goat hunters or for goat viewing. 

Alaska Backcountry Hunters and Anglers opposes heli skiing in the parks because of the potential effects on goats, vice-chair Dave Lyon of Homer wrote in a letter to the Division of Parks. Lyon cited 16 years of research in Alberta, Canada, that showed goats fled helicopters approaching as far away as a mile. Goats suffer stress, hurt themselves, abandon habitat and nannies abandon kids.

A 2004 position paper by the Northern Wild Sheep and Goat Council on heli skiing also notes these effects. The paper by executive director Kevin Hurley recommends avoiding nursery areas in winter ranges between Nov. 15 and April 30. Mountain goat winter and kidding distribution and habitat selection should be mapped before issuing permits, the paper suggests.

That’s a problem with proposing heli skiing in Kachemak Bay State Park and Wilderness Park: biologists don’t know those area.

“We don’t have a good grasp on what areas and what habitats are important to them in the winter,” said Thomas McDonough, an Alaska Department of Fish and Game research biologist. “We don’t have the level of detail that you would need in order to mitigate specific impacts on this particular project.”

Surveys that have been done of mountain goats, such as to assess hunting limits, are done in the summer, when goats stand out against green vegetation and snow-free mountains. McDonough said that in areas where heli skiing has gone on, goat numbers have dropped off, although that may not be the fault of heli skiing.

“We don’t know if heli skiing has contributed to those declines or if there has been some other factor, and that’s because baseline studies haven’t been done to properly assess those impacts,” McDonough said. “Without that level of information, you would not be able to assess impacts over time.”

Blackwell said so far his office has received about 75 comments on heli skiing. Willy Dunne, a member of the Kachemak Bay State Parks Citizen Advisory Board, said the board requested the comment period as well as a public hearing. Blackwell said a public hearing hasn’t been planned yet.

“The board in general wants to take a go-slow approach,” Dunne said. “There are several members who feel it just not is appropriate for the park.”

The board met Wednesday night to discuss the issue further, but at press time it was not known what it decided.

Dunne also noted concerns about mountain goats and the need to do more biological studies.

“Take a precautionary approach,” he said. “We don’t know enough about these guys and they’re vulnerable.”

Other concerns are the scenic and quiet qualities of the park and effects of helicopters on wintering sea ducks.

Kenai Heli Skiing has a website on its operation at kenaiheliski.com. Clients would stay at Aerotech Lodge in Seldovia. Blackwell said outside of the park heli skiing could be offered with permission of private and Alaska Native landowners. Skiing also would be allowed on state land outside the park. Njord Rota, owner of Kenai Heli Ski, did not return a message seeking comment on his operation.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

 

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