Pilot: USFS allocation of heli-skiing permits unfair
The U.S. Forest Service could be on the verge of offering the lower Kenai Peninsula a piece of the lucrative heli-skiing industry — albeit a very small piece — in the near future. That message, although welcomed by residents as a positive start, left many feeling the lower Kenai is playing second fiddle to Girdwood and other communities nearer to Anchorage when it comes to developing a winter economy.
During a public hearing on Oct. 26 in the Seward Community Library and Museum, Seward and Glacier ranger district representatives discussed plans for a new temporary-use permit that would allow a helicopter guided skiing operation to obtain up to a 200 service day permit.
"We are here to hear what you have to say," said Seward District Ranger Francisco Sanchez in announcing that the USFS is looking to offer a temporary-use permit for heli-skiing operations in two area locations. The permit would be for 200 service day usage in the Mount Ascension and East Ptarmigan areas, which have not seen high usage rates historically.
The hearing was one of three meetings Sanchez and Glacier District Ranger Tim Charnon held last week. They held a meeting in Girdwood on Oct. 23 and then staged a second meeting on Oct. 25 at the Moose Pass Community Center.
Commercially guided helicopter skiing was initially approved in the Kenai Peninsula in 2004. At that time, approximately 2,200 service days were permitted to Chugach Powder Guides, a Girdwood-based company. According to data from CPG and the ranger districts, the Mount Ascension and East Ptarmigan had been used infrequently by CPG. In an effort to increase access to the underserved areas, a temporary-use permit is being investigated.
"I think it is great that we are getting, potentially, closer to issuing permits to another operator," said Aaron Brill, who owns Silverton Mountain Guides Alaska, a helicopter service in Seward for the last three years, Silverton has openly requested access to federal land. "But what is being proposed in the prospectus isn't enough to maintain an operation in Seward. There are too few user days. With some sunshine, you could burn through that in two weeks. Secondly, there are only two terrain pods being offered. Mount Ascension gets a lot of wind. It's subject to more avalanche hazard as a result, probably one of the reasons they (CPG) haven't utilized Mount Ascension as much. The skiing quality isn't quite as great as some other areas."
Brill said the USFS' current issuance of the permits was unfair to operations on the lower Kenai Peninsula.
"There are approximately 1,800 service user days roughly and 12 pods for CPG, while there are only 200 user days and two pods for Seward," he said. "There seems like there is some inequity. Not to mention, these areas (Mount Ascension and East Ptarmigan) aren't significantly being used, so they are being opened for re-allocation."
Brill said there were additional pods that have been used less than four days a year that should also be opened for re-allocation. By opening those, he said a local business could develop a year-round operation. Such a move would also help distribute the user days equally among potential users.
"If you look at the actual use data for East Moose, West Bench and the Seattle pods, you'll see they are low, too. The 5-year average for East Moose is roughly used three days a year. If you do the Seattle pods, it's two days a year. As an operator, to use an area between zero and four days a year is nothing. I know they bang our runs because they have three helicopters and can bring a lot of people in a short period of time, but 3-4 days a year. I can do 20-something days in a month. Those areas should also be available for re-allocation."
Lucky Wilson, a local business owner and a resident of Alaska since 1974, said a re-allocation of the USFS permits could have a positive impact on the lower Kenai by creating winter business.
"I think we are forgetting about the hundreds of guests Aaron's business would bring in, and what it would bring to the motels, restaurants, gift stores, coffee shops, gas stations and supermarkets," he said. "All that money in the winter time.
Seward Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Cindy Clock and Seward Mayor David Squires said they were in support of an expanded heli-skiing operation. A heli-skiing operation would help build a winter economy by providing customers that would shop, eat and spend money at local businesses.
"Girdwood has a lot going for it already in wintertime," Brill said. "There's the benefit from Alyeska, and there's a lot of tourism. Seward doesn't have that benefit in the wintertime. There are things going on here, but it's not the same as apples and oranges. I think there should be more equity."
Sanchez said any expansion or re-allocation of other permits was a discussion for a later date. The only issue he was focused on was coming to a decision on the issuance of a temporary-use permit.
"I'm going to be clear with everyone," he said. "With the notice I sent out, we're talking about temporary use within the next six months for up to 200 days, if I go forward. That is what we are planning on. I need to know how those pods are going to be used and that is what we are discussing. I want to be crystal clear on that. If I do go forward with temporary use, it is going to be for up to 200 - days within the next six months."
Sanchez said he would decide whether to grant the temporary-use permit within the next few weeks.