Heli-skiing industry hits turbulence in Alaska

Posted: Sunday, January 05, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Helicopter skiing and snowboarding are a growing industry in many snowy climes, but in Alaska they're having a hard time lifting off.

A Girdwood company has scaled back its expansion plans after opposition arose to potential new landing sites. Outside Haines, the state has proposed new restrictions on heli-recreation operations at the urging of local residents.

Even in Thompson Pass, the region outside Valdez where heli-skiing previously has been limited only by weather and clientele, a federal agency is developing a new management plan that could halt or even reverse the industry's growth.

Critics say the sport is noisy and intrusive.

Matt White, who owns Valdez Heli-Camp, said, ''If I could run a heli-ski business without a helicopter, I'd be a happy man.''

White is one of five operators who use Thompson Pass, a region of steep slopes and deep snow. Backcountry skiers and boarders have thronged the area for decades, but it came to national attention when the first World Extreme Skiing Championships were held a decade ago. Extreme skiers seek out the riskiest runs imaginable.

Since then, Thompson Pass has appeared in ski magazines, calendars and films. Its fame has created a niche for businesses like White's. His lodge provides gourmet meals and world-class skiing at upwards of $4,500 a week.

But the explosive growth of helicopter recreation has also spurred calls to rein it in, said Bruce Rogers of the Bureau of Land Management. Some of those calls have come from competing heli-ski businesses, he said.

The bread-and-butter runs for Thompson Pass businesses have always been on state-owned land adjacent to the Richardson Highway, Rogers said. The slopes are cheap for helicopters to reach and provide plenty of good skiing. But as more choppers competed for untracked powder snow, guides started going farther afield, eventually straying onto federal tracts managed by the BLM. They should have had federal permits but most did not, Rogers said.

''We were not aware (the federal lands) were receiving the use they were receiving,'' he said.

That realization moved the agency to conduct an environmental assessment. After public meetings, it found no reason to limit helicopter flights, as some people had proposed. All five companies eventually received permits to operate. An appeal of the decision by several conservation groups and individuals is pending.

But the BLM has started work on a new land use plan for the Thompson Pass area. It will consider all facets of BLM land use in the region, but the heli-ski industry will get a thorough examination, Rogers said.

Judging from comments during the recent public hearings, he predicted that ''the analysis could potentially result in some limits,'' including closed areas and times.

The Alaska Center for the Environment recognizes that heli-skiing and heli-boarding are in Alaska to stay, said Cliff Eames, the group's public lands director. ''Our goal is to help agencies and the rest of the public find the right balance between activities like heli-skiing or snowmachining and other users, wildlife and ecological values.''

The group also worries that helicopter traffic will make it more difficult to get Congress to designate new wilderness areas.

Local objection has caused Girdwood-based Chugach Powder Guides to postpone its request to land at more places in the Kenai Mountains, said co-owner Mike Overcast.

The company wants one- and five-year permits from the U.S. Forest Service to use certain landing sites. After public meetings earlier this winter, Chugach eliminated Moose Creek, Ptarmigan Creek and Seattle Creek from its one-year request, Overcast said.

Chugach eventually hopes to include the three areas in its long-term plans, Overcast said. To help convince opponents that the helicopter flights won't be as bad as they fear, the company will gather information this winter with instruments such as a geophone to record sound levels, he said.

The Southeast community of Haines is still roiling over helicopter-assisted skiing and snowboarding in the narrow valley west of town.

The former city and borough spent 18 months developing a proposal to regulate the fledgling industry. Debate was lively, said Borough Mayor Mike Case. It defined flight corridors and minimum flying heights and set an annual limit of 1,000 skier days.

The Alaska Department of Natural Resources incorporated the limitations in a new special use designation released in November. The state's plan placed additional areas off-limits after March 31 and required that participants in competitions and major events, such as last year's Red Bull Snow Thrill, be included in the 1,000-skier day ceiling.

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