Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Copters on Sadie Peak? Permit request draws concern from conservation group

A permit request by an Anchorage-based helicopter company to land in nearly a dozen different locations in Kachemak Bay State Park and State Wilderness Park, including popular mountaintop trails like Grace Ridge and Sadie Peak, has drawn some ire and concern among those who say the activity would be disruptive to wildlife and human users alike.

A meeting of the Kachemak Bay State Parks Advisory Board is scheduled for today at 5:30 p.m. at the Islands and Ocean Visitor Center seminar room.

Roberta Highland, a longtime president and board member of the Kachemak Bay Conservation Society who now sits on the board’s issues and comments committee, said those who know about the helicopter company’s permit request have by-and-large expressed concern about the plan. But few know about it, she said.

“I can’t think of anything more disruptive to the park experience than a helicopter coming in,” Highland said.

But Nico von Pronay, owner of Norse Flight, Inc., said he’s not trying to disrupt the park experience for anyone. The permit requests an unspecified number of landings at 11 different sites in Kachemak Bay between May and September. The requested landing sites include Sadie Peak, Grace Ridge, China Poot Lake, Halibut Cove Lagoon, and on Glacier Spit as well as on Grewingk Glacier, Wosnesenski Glacier and Doroshin Glacier.

Von Pronay said he picked out the potential landing sites by looking at a map so that there would be plenty of options if the park officials didn’t approve some of the sites. If only a handful of the sites were approved, that would be great, he said.

“I don’t want to interfere with anyone’s park experience,” he said. “I think there’s a way that it can be done.”

Von Pronay said his primary business will be ferrying sport fishermen across the Cook Inlet, but he hoped to add a few tours daily at the most to round out the business. He said while some helicopters are loud, the ASTAR float-equipped helicopter he plans to use is relatively quiet, and less noisy than many float planes taking off in the middle of Homer during the summer. He also said it is much less disruptive to the environment than fixed wing aircraft, be they on floats or with beach landing gear, which leave tracks on the beach and drip oil. Helicopters, in contrast, disturb a very small footprint, he noted.

The plan is to have the helicopter equipped with a special seat for the elderly and handicapped people. Von Pronay said he flew helicopter tours in Denali Park and often had people on board who wouldn’t have been physically able to see the park any other way.

“By limiting or forbidding helicopters, you are limiting people who could not hike but would still like to enjoy the park,” he said. “Kachemak Bay is beautiful. I think we can have a couple of landing spots that are clearly marked so hikers can avoid them and still allow people who can’t walk into the park a way to see it.”

It’s not the first time helicopter use has become an issue in Kachemak Bay State Park. Several years ago, another company proposed a heli-skiing operation in the park, but that idea never got off the ground.

In fact, two companies have permits to fly and land helicopters in Kachemak Bay State Park — Pathfinder Aviation and Maritime Helicopter. Both have operated low-key operations, sometimes landing on Grewingk Glacier and other locations, but in general causing little-to-no conflict between park users hiking and recreating and those choosing expedited access via the air.

But just because those operations have managed to strike a balance doesn’t mean the door should be opened to any helicopter operators, Highland said.

“Why allow another one?” she said. “There’s already two and we’ve been lucky enough not to have a lot of conflict.”

In an opinion piece written to the Homer Tribune (see page 5), Wendy Anderson, secretary of the Kachemak Bay Conservation Society said helicopter traffic goes against the statutory purpose of the park, “to protect and preserve this land and water for its unique and exceptional wilderness value … .”

“Permitting additional helicopter operations in the park would further impact all of these things that make the park the special wilderness that it is,” she said. “Helicopter noise has been shown to disrupt wildlife behavior.

 Existing helicopter operations are no reason to permit more airborne access to these wilderness lands.”

Von Pronay said with the state’s economy struggling, encouraging the flow of tourism dollars into Alaska is a good idea. And he said he welcomes a dialogue about locations where helicopter landings would be less disruptive, such as further away from some of the popular trails. He said even if the landing sites he requested are approved, they are all conditional and can be revoked if they are not compatible with others using the park.

“I’ve been doing tour flying for four years now, and it’s one of the best jobs I’ve ever had,” he said. “I don’t want to destroy nature — I love it. That’s part of the reason why I’m here.”

While the advisory board will take comment on the permit application, it does not have the authority to do more than make a recommendation to state parks officials. The decision rests with Regional Park Superintendent Jack Blackwell, Highland said.

Blackwell did not respond to requests for an interview by press time.

Original article can be found here:  http://homertribune.com

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