Heli-skiing in Kachemak Bay State and Wilderness Parks

November 15, 2012
Pamela Russell, Project Coordinator
Gilman River Center
514 Funny River Road
Soldotna, AK 99669


Dear Ms. Russell:

The purpose of this letter is to offer the comments of the Alaska Quiet Rights Coalition (AQRC) in response to the Oct. 15th public notice stating that multiple application to operate commercial helicopter skiing in Kachemak Bay State Park (KBSP) and Kachemak Bay State Wilderness Park (KBSWP) had been received by DPOR.. Our comments consist of three parts: opposition to heli-skiing in either park; specific comments on the two permit applications made public; and comments on the public process itself.

AQRC is a state-wide non-profit organization whose mission is to maintain and restore natural sounds and natural quiet in Alaska through advocacy and education for the benefit of people and wildlife. Our objective is a fair and balanced allocation of Alaska’s public lands for both non-motorized and motorized recreational uses. Heli-skiing is antithetical to our mission and distorts the fair allocation concerns. Over the years, AQRC has been involved in the commercial heli-skiing issue with Chugach National Forest and BLM. Several years ago, our concerns about helicopter-supported recreation led AQRC to commission a study entitled “Helicopter-Supported Commercial Recreation Activities in Alaska”. The report contains a valuable compilation of the many issues created by commercial helicopter operations and of mitigation and monitoring measures public agencies have attempted to institute to lessen the adverse effects of heli-recreation. I have enclosed a copy of the report for your convenience; it is also accessible on AQRC’s website at www.alaskaquietrights.org

Opposition to heli-skiing in KPSP and KBSWP

Due to the adverse effects that helicopter noise has on on wildlife, quiet recreationists, favorite backcounty areas, communities and cabin/homeowners, we do not support heli-skiing in either of the Parks. We believe heli-skiing serves the few at the expense of the many; the visitor at the expense of the local recreationist; the “motorized” recreationist at the expense of the quiet recreationist. It is an unnecessary and unsuitable activity to introduce into these two parks. In short, we believe that heli-skiing does adversely affect: the natural resources of the parks (e.g., wildlife, natural quiet); can cause pollution (e.g., fuel leaks, human waste); and, the non-motorized user of the park (e.g., annoyance due to noise or presence, displacement from favorite areas).

Further, we would argue that the statutory language creating the Wilderness Park at AS 41.21.140(a) (“…is reserved from all uses incompatible with its primary function as a wilderness park… “) and the statutory definition of a “wilderness park” at AS 41.21.990(2) (“…where development of man-made objects will be strictly limited and depend entirely on good taste and judgment so that the wilderness values are not lost” )in fact prohibit heli-skiing. We are aware that the regulations at 11 AAC 20.210 permit the director to authorize the use of aircraft in the park under the provisions of a special park use permit. However, in view of the clear statutory language, we question under what circumstances the director could conclude that the regulations would allow him to authorize commercial heli-skiing operations in a wilderness park, in fact, Alaska’s only wilderness park.

In regard to Kachemak Bay State Park, the enabling legislation states that the park is to be managed as a “scenic park” and that incompatible uses are to be spelled out in regulation. In turn the regulations at 11 AAC 20.110 (b) indicate that helicopter use is incompatible unless and until authorized by the director through the special permit process.. We would further argue that the definition of “scenic park” at AS 41.21.990(1) sets a high bar for the director to award a permit for a commercial venture using noisy machines with wording such as “…where development is minimal and only for the purpose of making the areas available…in a manner consistent with the preservation of the natural values…and without extensive introduction of artificial features…”

Finally, we would point out that the management plan does not consider heli-skiing in its identification of suitable recreational activities. Skiing and snowshoeing are cited as on-going recreational activities. Though the plan cites, as an issue, conflict between flight-seeing/air taxi services and quiet backcountry users who have relied on their muscle- power to access the backcountry, we suggest this conflict refers to summer recreational activities only. It also appears that the regulations were written in contemplation exclusively of summer activities by speaking to landings in KBSWP on saltwater and beaches and in KPSP on lakes, gravel bars and saltwater. We offer this as clearly indicating that the public did not consider heli-skiing as an activity when considering and commenting on the existing management plan.

Permit Applications submitted to DPOR for Heli-skiing Operations

The Oct. 15, 2012 Public Notice indicates that multiple applications have been submitted to DPOR and that permits “may be issued” pursuant to Special Park Use Permits, Chapter 18, AAC. To date, two of the applications have been made public: Kenai Heli Ski for a Non-competitive Commercial Activity Permit under 11 AAC 18.030. and Cove for a Special Park Use Permit under 11 AAC 18.010. Neither application contains enough information about what they intend to do for the public to comment intelligently or for DPOR to process. In our opinion, the application from Cove should not have been accepted, since it depends on building some cabins in the future which it would appear have not yet been permitted. The Public Notice invites the public to comment on the provisions listed in 11 AAC 18.025(c), but the applications do not speak to these provisions, except indirectly, to the safety of Kenai Heli Ski potential clients through the submission of various certificates. We have received a copy of a map, containing the Kenai Heli Ski logo, which shows hundreds of pick-up and drop zones within both parks. If this is part of the official application, why was it not released as a public document ? If not part of the official application, there is nothing in the application as submitted which even hints at the scope of these plans. Our question is how would DPOR ever learn about these proposed landing spots and factor them into their decision-making ? AQRC has downloaded the Alaska State Parks Special Park Use Permit Application and the General Stipulations as well as the General Permit Stipulations for Commercial Operators. On the assumption that no other forms or documents are required to apply for such permits, AQRC is baffled as to how DPOR can make a decision granting a permit when the application does not require key information. How does the Director possibly make a determination in response to the issues raised in 11 AAC 18.025(c)(1)-(4) when the applicant is not required to address those issues ? For example, how can the Director determine that the park’s natural resources, e.g., wildlife, would not be adversely affected by heli-skiing before knowing what populations are present in areas the operator plans to target, the altitudes and routes the helicopters would fly, the noise affects at those altitudes, the proposed landing sites, hours of operation, etc., etc.

Public Process

The Public Notice tries to do two things at once and the consequence is total confusion. It speaks to applications which “may be awarded”, but then asks for the public’s general opinion on heli-skiing in the two parks. The Notice does not state that the applications will not be processed. Originally, it failed to make the two applications it had received public so the public could not comment as to the suitability or comprehensiveness of the applications though the threat of “may be awarded” hangs over the process. Informally, AQRC has been advised that DPOR will not be processing these applications, they are considered null and void and no permits would be granted for this winter season. The Public Notice, however, does not state that and in fact implies that those applications could be processed. As an example of the confusion created, we note that the Oct. 10, 2012 issue of the Seldovia Gazette contains an interview with the owner of Kenai Heli Ski who indicates that they were already taking reservations for this coming winter season.


AQRC firmly opposes permitting heli-skiing in KBSP or KBSWP. We suggest that you start the public process over: either simply ask for general comment on the advisability of permitting heli-skiing in those two parks or ask for comment on the applications you have received. We are concerned that you have accepted the applications from two concerns and must now follow-through and process them. Our suggestion is to reject the applications on the basis that the management plan has not considered such activity and that the plan will need revision before this activity can be further considered. Then, begin the appropriate planning process through which you can obtain true public opinion as to the suitability of this activity in these parks. Once that issue is resolved, regulatory changes can be considered, if necessary. We would also urge you to “beef up” the administrative application process for a permit so that you require an applicant to lay out their proposed operation in detail and how he/she intends to satisfy the regulatory questions the Director must consider. These steps would enable the public and the Division to properly assess the impacts of this activity and determine whether a permit should be granted and under what conditions.

Thank you for this opportunity to comment.

Sincerely yours,

Susan Olsen, President