The Haines Borough Assembly approved a fourth heliskiing operator at its Tuesday meeting, authorized by a new ordinance passed last month lifting the limit on heliskiing permits for one year. The assembly also presented a new plan to restrict the construction of new yurts and container homes inside the townsite. Reporting by Corinne Smith of KHNS.
Haines is well known for its off-piste skiing, and the heli-skiing industry provides access to fresh snow and remote areas only accessible by helicopter.
Assemblywoman Cheryl Stickler supports expanding the heli-skiing industry and reducing borough regulation. She is chair of the government and services committee, which discussed and drafted changes to the borough’s code to allow more heli-skiing tour permits and grow the industry.
“It looks like all the boxes have been checked, all the answers have been done in a complete and comprehensive manner,” Stickler said. “I therefore saw no reason on this point to refuse this request. Second, because at the last meeting we approved a fourth operator. I think at this point it is the next logical step to approve this application.
The assembly adopted an ordinance during its meeting of December 22 lifting for one year the limit of heliskiing excursion permits in the borough. Instead of assigning and tracking skier days, the borough decided to regulate helicopter days.
Assembly Members Stickler and Caiti Kirby presented the final version, which would allow for more than three heli-skiing permits with a maximum of six helicopters per day, and up to eight helicopters per day for additional use, as approved by the Borough Manager.
The new ordinance does not allow each heliski tour operator to have more than two helicopters per day. The borough charges a non-refundable user fee of $3,000 for the first helicopter and $5,000 for the second before January 15.
The question sparked heated debate. The borough first addressed the issue when Stellar Adventure Travel owner Reggie Crist applied for a fourth heli-skiing permit, and was denied by the clerk because code only allowed three. The assembly then decides to examine the revision of the borough code.
Opponents of the expansion of the heli-skiing industry criticized this action as preferential treatment and cited overpopulation, as well as impacts on critical mountain goat habitat.
Haines helicopter pilot Rihanna Brownell of Alaska Heliskiing says she is concerned about the safe addition of other operators to the mountainside.
“If there’s a conflict with Stellar (Adventure Travel) or any of the other operators, I think that needs to be resolved before we approve a fourth operator,” Brownell said. “We need guidelines to signal when we feel an area is too crowded because it looks like we’re going to have a very busy season on our hands.”
Under the new ordinance, infractions are reported and documented by the borough manager’s office.
Proponents of a fourth heli-skiing operator and expanding the industry cite dedicated and experienced guides and customers willing to ski Haines. And it would be a boon to the winter economy, says new tour operator Reggie Crist.
“We just want to provide visitors with the best and safest skiing experiences. That has always been our goal,” Crist said.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Assembly Member Debra Schnabel attempted to add a provision requiring Stellar Adventure Travel to submit at the end of each month, a daily GPS log of ski routes, landing zones and flight paths used – what conservationists have been asking for better tracking. impacts of heliskiing. The Borough rejected it, 4-2, with Assemblymen Schnabel and Tyler Huling in favor.
The assembly also introduced an ordinance to limit the construction of new yurts, container homes and other alternative accommodation outside the townsite.
Currently, yurts are allowed anywhere as long as they have a concrete foundation and are connected to proper facilities like electricity and plumbing. The new ordinance would limit permanent residence in shelters such as yurts, tents and containers to five primarily rural areas – which constitute an area outside of downtown Haines (see the Haines zoning map here).
This was in response to a recommendation from the Planning Commission which had received complaints from neighboring landlords who claimed they were driving down values. Planning Commission Chair Diana Lapham spoke in favor of the proposal.
“It’s definitely a compromise because it’s in rural residential areas, as well as mixed rural areas, that yurts would be allowed. Any other area and that would not be allowed,” Lapham said.
Existing yurts in the townsite would be grandfathered.
The next public hearings for the order are scheduled for January 25 and February 8.