Advisory board recommends denying helicopter permit

In an unanimous decision at a March 9 meeting of the Kachemak Bay State Parks Board, the citizen advisory group recommended denying a permit to Norse Flight to land helicopters within Kachemak Bay State Park and State Wilderness Park. The Anchorage company applied for a permit to land at up to 11 sites in the parks on the south side of Kachemak Bay, including popular hiking trails at Glacier Spit, Halibut Cove Lagoon and the top of Grace Ridge.

Maritime Helicopters and Pathfinder Aviation, both of Homer, have been landing helicopters at Grewingk Glacier. Maritime got a permit in 1989 and Pathfinder in 2003. Maritime takes about 45 clients a year and Pathfinder from four to 32 clients a year, according to a paper prepared by Alaska State Parks. Norse Flight also sought to land at Grewingk Glacier.

Alaska State Parks hasn’t had complaints about the Maritime and Pathfinder landings, “But now that another company has stepped forward, we’re starting to hear concerns,” said Jack Blackwell, superintendent for the Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound region.

Alaska State Parks had come to the board seeking recommendations on which landing zones should be allowed, but the board pulled back from making any suggestions.

“We cut it right here and wait for the management plan,” said board member Nancy Hillstrand. “Deny the permit application because we want to wait until we have the management plan in place.”

Hillstrand referred to a proposed revision of the Kachemak Bay State Park and Wilderness Parks management plan, a document that would 

guide decisions like where and if commercial helicopter operations could land. State Parks is in the process of revising the plan. In tabling an application in 2012 for heli skiing in the park, State Parks cited the management plan as a reason to not act on the application. Helicopter assisted skiing wasn’t addressed in the management plan.

Blackwell said an Alaska Supreme Court decision on ATV permits at Nancy Lake State Park said permit applicants have to be treated equally. The Maritime and Pathfinder permits were noncompetitive, as is the Norse Flight application.

“It could be that with the management plan revision, if we hear a bunch of concerns about landings, we could come up with a scenario that might work with a limited number of permits, or one permit issue,” he said.

In public comments, the Norse Flight application was widely opposed. Homer and Kachemak Bay residents said the level of activity would intrude on the wilderness character of the park. 

Roberta Highland of the Kachemak Bay Conservation Society made the recommendation the board adopted.

“We would like to wait for the management plan to be done before any applications are accepted for helicopters,” she said.

Mike McCarthy, who lives on Kachemak Drive near the Homer Airport, said he accepts that airplanes and helicopters will fly overhead.

“When I’m across the bay camping, I don’t want to hear 100 decibel machines,” he said. “It’s not compatible for what the park is for.”

Elise Wolf, a Halibut Cove resident since 1964, said that the fact that commercial helicopters have been landing in the park since 1985 does not require unlimited helicopter landings. “If they (state officials) want to assume they have unlimited ability to allow permits because of these two precedents, I think that can be challenged,” she said.

Rick Harness, a kayak guide who lives in Tutka Bay, said helicopters don’t just affect park users. It’s his home, he said.

“The worst thing you can imagine is people who have spent thousands of dollars to come to Homer, get on a water taxi, hike up there (Grace Ridge) and all of a sudden a helicopter lands,” he said.

Louise Seguela and Dave Lyon both mentioned the effect of helicopters on wildlife, particularly mountain goats. They cited a British Columbia research study that recommends distances of 1 mile from goats.

Lyon, chair of the Homer Fish and Game Advisory Committee, said the committee also recommended not granting the Norse Flight permit. Alpine areas are used by walk-in hunters, he said, and a helicopter landing would negate the hunting experience. Goats are common at high elevations.

“Landing on Sadie Peak, you’re not talking about being within 1.5 kilometers (1 mile),” he said. “You’re talking about ‘Get out of my way. We’re landing.’”

The Kachemak Bay State Parks Board recommendation will be considered by the director of the Alaska State Parks, with the final decision to come sometime in April. 

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

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