Helicopter landings in K-Bay state park should be restricted

Norse Flight Inc., an Anchorage-based company, has applied for a permit for an unspecified (unlimited) number of landings at 11 different sites in Kachemak Bay State Park and Kachemak Bay State Wilderness Park from May through September. 

Allowing more permits for commercial helicopter landings in the Kachemak Bay State Park and Kachemak Bay State Wilderness Park (The Park) is a bad idea. Period.  The Park is a unique and magnificent place. The Alaska Division of Natural Resources website describes the Park as follows:

Kachemak Bay State Park, Alaska’s first park, its only wilderness park, contains roughly 400,000 acres of mountains, glaciers, forests and ocean. … Kachemak Bay is a critical habitat area, supporting many species of marine life. Visitors frequently observe sea otters, seals, porpoise and whales. Intertidal zones offer natural settings for marine studies. Land mammals include moose, black bear, mountain goats, coyotes and wolves. The many species of birds that inhabit the bay, including eagles, gyrfalcons and puffins, make it a popular area for bird watching.

Permitting additional helicopter operations in the Park would further impact all of these things that make the Park the special wilderness that it is. Helicopter noise has been shown to disrupt wildlife behavior. Existing helicopter operations are no reason to permit more airborne access to these wilderness lands.

Helicopter noise is loud, 100 dB on average, up to 15 times louder than the ambient sound levels of the Park, and the noise travels long distances. Helicopters pose a mechanical intrusion into a place where people go for quiet interaction with untrammeled wilderness. Helicopter noise is extremely disruptive to people seeking a quiet wilderness experience.  It is even more disruptive to wildlife which may be stressed already from nurturing young and avoiding hunters or natural predators. The negative impacts of helicopter noise on wildlife behavior in Alaska is well documented by both the State of Alaska and the National Park Service.  Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists have already expressed concerns regarding the effects of helicopter noise on wildlife (February advisory board meeting).

According to Park regulations (11 AAC 18.030), permits for access may be issued if the permit is compatible with the statutory purposes for which the park was established and the director finds that there is no need to limit the number of individuals or firms providing the service to protect public use of the state park or to protect state park resources. 

Further, the director may issue a permit for access if park facilities and natural and cultural resources will not be adversely affected;  the state park is protected from pollution (noise is pollution!);  public use values of the state park will be maintained and protected; and the public safety, health, and welfare will not be adversely affected.  (11 AAC 18.025)

The statutory purpose for which the Park was established, in pertinent part, is “to protect and preserve this land and water for its unique and exceptional wilderness value, the park is established and shall be managed as a wilderness park. The land and water lying within the following described parcels is reserved from all uses incompatible with its primary function as a wilderness park.” (AS 41.21.131 and 140)

Helicopter traffic is incompatible with management of the Park as a wilderness area.

As noted earlier, the existence of some permits for helicopter landings in the Park does not establish a precedent for further permitting. The director has the authority to limit or close the Park to any activity upon a “determination that the action is necessary for the maintenance of public health and safety, protection of environmental or scenic values, protection of natural or cultural resources, aid to scientific research, implementation of management responsibilities, equitable allocation and use of facilities, or the avoidance of conflict among visitor use activities.” (11 AAC 12.335)

Accordingly it is completely reasonable for the director to determine that the existing helicopter landing permits are more than sufficient and issuance of further permits would lead to additional significant conflict between Park users who enjoy the “exceptional wilderness value” of the Park and those few who want a helicopter ride into the Park.

Additional aircraft traffic in the Park, especially helicopters, should be addressed through the Park Management Plan. A revision to the current Plan, which runs through 2017, to address changing needs and potential threats was begun over two years ago but has been delayed many times and there has been little progress in the planning process the past year. No further air traffic permits should be issued until this Management Plan is completed.

Written comments may be submitted to:  Regional Park Superintendent jack.blackwell@alaska .gov.

Wendy Anderson is the secretary for the Kachemak Bay Conservation Society. This piece was submitted on behalf of KBCS.