Three environmental groups, along with several private citizens from Moose Pass, filed a lawsuit Tuesday in federal district court challenging a U.S. Forest Service permit that would expand the area available to heli-skiing in the Chugach National Forest.
Among other things, the lawsuit alleges that the Forest Service failed to adequately address impacts to local communities and wildlife.
"We think they didn't do their analysis properly," said Rick Smeriglio, a Moose Pass resident who is involved in the suit.
In September, the Forest Service announced it had made the decision to grant Chugach Powder Guides, a Girdwood-based backcountry ski company that brings skiers into the mountains via helicopter, a five-year permit to operate on roughly 160,000 acres through 2010, as well as a conditional one-year permit to operate on approximately 100,000 additional acres.
According to Rebecca Talbott, a public affairs officer with the Chugach National Forest, the company already operates in the 160,000 acre area. The permit in question would open up the new areas for one-year "exploratory" operations.
Talbott said the Forest Service had not yet seen the lawsuit, nor could the service comment on any pending litigation.
Many Moose Pass residents and environmental groups contend that by increasing the amount of helicopters operating in the area, wildlife and humans will be disturbed.
The new permit also would allow Chugach Powder Guides to increase the number of staging areas it uses in the forest from three to six.
On Tuesday, Chugach Powder Guides business manager Chris Owens said he wasn't surprised a lawsuit had been filed.
"We knew this was coming," Owens said.
Owens said he's disappointed because his company went through a long and difficult permitting process that included ample time for public comment, environmental analysis and input from stakeholder groups.
"The Forest Service has been through an extremely difficult time trying to balance everybody's needs and I think they've done a great job," he said.
Smeriglio said he's not convinced the Forest Service considered the feelings of locals, noting a petition with 125 signatures roughly the entire population of Moose Pass wasn't taken into account by the Forest Service.
"I think they ignored us," he said.
He said he's not against Chugach Powder Guides doing business in the mountains he just feels as if the process was flawed and all issues not taken into account.
"We're not trying to shut anybody down," he said. "We just want some balance."
Owens said the public process was followed and contends his operation doesn't have nearly the impact its opponents claim.
"The truth of the matter is they're not going to see us or hear us," he said.
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