Tahoe-based Tailgate Alaska recently had their permit renewed to continue there presence in Thompson Pass. I refer to the event as Carbongate, Rotorgate or Motorgate, as it seems odd to name a ski event after tailgating, a social phenomenom with it’s roots in college football. Besides, it has little redeeming economic value to our community based 30 miles away. It’s intrusive plain and simple. It is based on mountain access by sled or helicopter and thus represents the largest single source of air pollution in Thompson Pass. Of course with that pollution comes lots of noise. A variety of safety issues including avalanches and ignorance of ethical backcountry practices endorsed by a variety of professional outdoor organizations is perhaps the biggest concern.
Right there in Thompson Pass, under glaciers that are melting faster than ever, Taligate promotes our wasteful use of oil for recreation while ignoring global warming. Do you remember that glacier that used to be over there? Do you remember when it snowed? Every skier should be an activist on the issue and try to Save Our Snows. Tailgate represents “Who Cares.”
Despite substantial public comment and concerns about the impact of the event on local user groups, DNR approved Tailgate with no changes through 2021. How can this happen? One only needs to look at recent changes in state law. Here’s some background….
Under previous state law, a citizen(s) could appeal the DNR – Tailgate permit. DNR was required to address issues and look for resolution such as consistancy with other state and federal land use plans on adjacent lands, trash, out-buildings, user conflicts, etc. DNR did adjust Thompson Pass permits in some sort of a compromise on these issues. I was never happy with the results of these appeals, but at least some special stipulations added. This process worked in the 1990’s as heliskiing operations were limited and permits were adjusted and forced to respect public input. State regulators could receive information that they may not have been aware such as critical goat habitat. In fact, one heli-ski company was restricted from flying through Sheep Creek Canyon based on requests by local residents including local hunters. Other areas were added as the heliski operator did not have a clue about their impacts on goat habitat. Today they actually do a good job avoiding goats. I wish the same could be same for backcountry skiers in avalanche terrain or nearing a peak.
Previously, if the Director of DNR continued to be unresponsive to citizen’s concerns, (ie goats) they could appeal to State Court, forcing the state to defend it’s action at no cost to the citizens who filed the petition. This process is similar to Bureau of Land Management and Chugach National Forest. It has worked well and most appeals never saw a courtroom except one. A citizen’s lawsuit versus BLM regarding heli-ski permits in the lates 90’s set the framework for heli-skiing and restricted their operations on federal lands near Thompson Pass. Chugach National Forest has the most formidable permitting system for commercial operations, so I doubt you will see Tailgate on CNF land.
The permit system changed dramatically under Governor Parnell when the state legislature decided to severely limit public input on land use permits. They were successful in “streamlining” the process at the public’s expense. Governor Parnell and his minions changed the law.They limited public input to 2-weeks on a permit such as Tailgate’s. They eliminated the appeal process at the State level. Further they passed another law that if a citizen does go to court over a permit and lost, they would have to pay the state for it’s expense in defending the suit. In fact “special events” in Thompson Pass can be approved in as little as 10 days without time for the public to read and little time to submit concerns.
An example of restricting input was at the DNR Copper River Basin Plan hearing last fall. It was the biggest turnout anywhere in the state. They did not allow a public hearing. The turnout was driven by grassroots and comments on Tailgate and heliskiing were the top concerns. DNR permitting agents were at that meeting. They ignored all the good ideas, held no further discussion with the public, and handed Tailgate a key to a parking lot near Worthington Glacier recently.
While Tailgate may give the illusion they have community support, it’s not much. I still have yet to find a local particularly enamored with the event. Most think it’s a travesty to our uniqueness and spaciousness. And some of those those remarks come from long-time Valdez sledders. Local sledders and backcountry skiers agree on something and that is noteworthy.
But when you ignore public concerns and common planning processes something will eventually come back and bite you. During recent City Council meetings a few have voiced concerns about support of the event realizing that all Tailgate wants from the City of Valdez is a handout of cash or something. Tail-gate is not a local non-profit organization. They are a commercial, profit-driven event. Very little money makes it to Valdez as they endorse RV’s to park on the Pass not down in Valdez. Hotels see very little traffic in winter. Valdez derives some lodging income from winter with a measly 5% lodging tax. Those include H20 who lodge their clients in Valdez and Robe Lake Lodge which is in cahoots with Black Ops. It’s worth mentioning that Thompson Pass is not within the municipal boundaries of the City of Valdez. If Valdez were able to collect 5% of anything from Tailgate and the heliski industry, we would see some respect to Valdez for it’s 25 years of financial support of the ski industry.
Today Thompson Pass is at an impasse. In 25 years, no major winter investors have touched Valdez. No land-use plan has been developed. Most seem to prefer a land-use policy dictated on no policy and no public input. Shoddy land-use management by the state has resulted in continued conflicts. Worse is the decreasing value of a major public asset, world-class skiing in Thompson Pass. Tailgate has taken advantage of this void in land-use planning and dumped it’s mess on the rest of us.
Can we fix it? Perhaps.. here’s a few suggestions.
1. The City of Valdez could annex Thompson Pass to Mile 35 giving residents a greater voice in management along with expanding it’s tax base.
2. DNR could request our local State Parks Advisory Board expand their oversight to include the Thompson Pass Special Use Area.
3. Vigilance by citizens works well with good documentation.
4. Continue annual DNR meetings in Valdez.
5. Move Tailgate to Mile 18. This would return Thompson Pass to the general public and not to be monopolized by a single commercial event. Though it may be called a “10-day event”, Tailgate organizers use the site for 12 weeks for a variety of other commercial activities. It’s an on-going thing til the snow melts and the trash appears. Placing the event at 18-Mile would help with logistics, sanitation issues, and provide better storm protection and safety. An old oil pipe-yard would be the perfect site for Tailgate.
These are my ideas. Some are okay, others might be aghast. But their is a middle-ground in the fight for quiet and the right to powder.
Based on DNR’s performance last year, we wasted our time watching the state act sincere, take a survey, and then acted like a “government for government” not a “government for the people”. No changes were made to the Tailgate permit in regards to public comments. We wasted our time and that is why it is an insult to those who sincelywrote comments expecting some results I read them, all of them. They are great and some passionate. I didn’t comment because DNR knows my opinion. I also know how useless comments are on permits on Thompson Pass since the change in state law. .
I’m not encouraged that any serious grass-roots activism on these issue will occur. There are some peace-meal proposals with maps that won’t go anywhere (sorry Tory ….been there done that). They will walk over your efforts unless you rise stronger and organize better. It will take real effort.
My opinion on these matters is well documented. I’m concerned about Thompson Pass being loved to death and like many of us, concerned about global warming.
Meanwhile, I’ll cede to mother nature so she can have the final word on Tailgate and what it represents to the earth.
Matt Kinney December 9, 2016