Alaska DNR seeks to eliminate heli-skiing ‘monopoly’ near Girdwood

Girdwood and Turnagain Arm from the top of Mount Alyeska (Karinna Gomez photo)

A state proposal would open up an area near Girdwood to more snowcat- and helicopter-assisted skiing by eliminating what the Department of Natural Resources describes as a “monopoly” in the area.

The state wants to remove a limit on the number of permits for commercial snowcat and heli-skiing in a part of the Chugach Mountains called the Glacier/Winner Creek Special Use Area.

For roughly 20 years, the lone permit has gone to Chugach Powder Guides.

“We’ve always understood that if somebody else wanted to throw their hat in the ring for it, that there was an established process for how they would award that permit,” said Chugach Powder Guides Henry Munter.

But the state says it hasn’t had a good process to consider more than one applicant. So, when another one came forward in 2018, DNR says it needed to rewrite the rules.

An official with the department declined an interview request and would not identify the company that had expressed interest in the permit, citing a legally required “quiet period.”

But Alaska Public Media learned that the company is Silverton Mountain Guides, which currently operates in other parts of the Chugach flying out of Girdwood and Seward.

Silverton Mountain Guides owner-operator Aaron Brill said he had become frustrated that the special use area did not allow multiple companies.

“And so yeah, the fairness has always been a huge issue, ’cause it’s not just how the state looks at skiing, it’s for any commercial entity that’s using public lands,” Brill said. “If they’re not using the lands appropriately, in a safe and proficient manner, or not using them at all and just using a permit to exclude others, that shouldn’t be allowed, and that’s what transpired prior to now.”

Munter, with Chugach Powder Guides, disagreed with the description that his company has held a “monopoly.” He’s not opposed to rewriting the rules, but Munter said it’s actually more common for land managers elsewhere in the U.S. or in Canada to limit heli-skiing to a single operator in a particular area. Some use a point system to award permits that is based on a variety of factors, he said.

That creates “tenure” in the area, Munter said.

“They’ve realized really great safety and quality gains by doing that,” Munter said. “But in the short term, this particular piece of land was going to be a controversial and difficult thing for them to manage, and with limited resources I can see why they wanted to not tackle that.”

Public comment on the Department of Natural Resources proposal to change permitting for the Glacier/Winner Creek Special Use Area is open until October 14. More information can be found online at the state DNR’s “hot topics” page.