BY MICHAEL ARMSTRONG
Following a comment period that brought 1,500 comments from all over Alaska and the United States, the Alaska Division of Parks and Recreation earlier this month announced it will postpone a decision on whether or not to allow commercial helicopter assisted skiing in Kachemak Bay State Park and Kachemak Bay Wilderness Park.
Instead, State Parks will focus on revising the 1995 park management plans, and look at commercial heli skiing in the context of other issues, including personal watercraft use and operation and maintenance of facilities. A decision on heli skiing won’t be made until that plan is updated.
“This is an issue that will require careful and thorough evaluation to determine if it is compatible with the legislation that created the park,” said Ben Ellis, director of the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation.
State Parks had sought comments on whether or not to allow heli skiing in the parks after two operations applied for helicopter landing permits. One, Kenai Heli Skiing, based out of Glenwood Springs, Colo., proposed numerous landings and sites, with daily trips.
Another proposal by Seldovia resident Jeffrey Lee was much more limited, with only a few landings a week to assist getting people and supplies to backcountry skiing and huts.
Lee said he was pleased with the decision to postpone and had been concerned park managers would rush into the decision.
“They’re going to step back and take a bigger picture,” he said. “I think they’re being prudent and taking care of our resource.”
Kenai Heli Skiing has been promoting heli skiing out of Aerotech Lodge in Seldovia. Private group trips are priced at $70,000, lodging and meals included, while more modest week-long skiing packages with lodging and meals range from $7,500 to $8,500. Daily trips are $945.
Kenai Heli Skiing will still operate for the 2013 season, but outside of the state parks, said Njord Rota, owner of Kenai Heli Skiing. Rota reserved comment on State Parks’ decision to postpone permitting, saying he wanted to wait for his lawyers to do their due diligence.
Jack Blackwell, park superintendent for the Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound Area, said State Parks received a broad range of thoughtful and good comments on both sides of the issue. In a letter to stakeholders and those who commented, Blackwell said the director may issue a special use park permit if four conditions are met: 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.
“We found that it’s an important issue that’s facing the Kachemak Bay State Park and Kachemak Bay State Wilderness Park,” Blackwell said of heli skiing. “It will require careful and thorough evaluation that’s consistent with those four conditions and the legislation that created the park.”
The management plan review will start in 2013, Blackwell said, with many opportunities for people to be involved. The review could include working with other agencies, such as the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, to gather information to help answer questions about proposed activities. One issue raised about heli skiing was its effect on mountain goats and other wildlife.
Also part of the process would be looking at how activities are allowed. Something like heli skiing, where limited use might be authorized, could result in the state issuing a competitive use permit, as has been done with boat launching with tractors at Deep Creek and the Anchor River beaches.
Citizens can stay involved through the Kachemak Bay State Parks Citizens Advisory Board, Blackwell said.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.