Tailgate Permit Comments – No Way to 3000 or 300.

January 18, 2017

To : Candice Snow – DNR

From : Matt Kinney – Valdez Resident

Subject :   LAS 27925 – (Tailgate)

I am opposed to this permit. Since Tailgate arrived on Thompson Pass, the concerns over land-use conflicts are secondary to the safety issues in allowing the event to exist at its current or future level of participation. Without a planning process for the Thompson Pass Special Use Area that addresses safety concerns and other conflicts of use, we can expect the continuation of this event to dramatically increase the risk of human injury and/or death.

I don’t think the Alaska Ski Act releases the state or the permittee from negligence or gross negligence in light of the past or future of Tailgate. The Ski Act does not address an event such as Tailgate specifically, but there is little doubt that this is a ski event /operation/facility on state land lasting three months and dominating a major recreational destination for Alaskans. Based on the application, this should be classified as an industrial operation or permitted as a “recreational facility” due to its size, longevity and the potential impact on safety concerns on the site and adjacent state lands.

As a professional avalanche forecaster and long-time backcountry ski guide I have seen profound changes. Over the past three years the changes have been most disconcerting. Hundreds of sleds with and without skiers, along with helicopters are saturating the core area of the Pass and the avalanche prone slopes surrounding it.

It is simply impossible to manage traffic on these avalanche slopes. The terrain is best classified as “complicated”. Those above you may or may not know what they are doing in regards to stability. If you are under them, you are at risk and hope they know what they are doing. While these scenarios may be workable with a few small groups in the same area, it is not the case in Thompson Pass where dozens congregate or commute in avalanche terrain and run-out zones. While most the time the snow is stable, sometimes it’s not.

In the past, fatal incidents in the area have involved one or two other people (see attached photo). The chances of a natural or human-triggered avalanche engulfing many people will certainly increase if this permit is issued. There is also a growing concern about heliski guides who drop clients on ski-touring or mountaineering parties nearing summits. This is serious and you must understand the dynamics involving group strategies in “complicated” avalanche terrain. In Thompson Pass, there are no required strategies or coordination by commercial mechanized ski operations as it relates to each other and the general public.

This permit will logically increase the likelihood of an incident involving lots of people, including the instigators and innocent bystanders. Human and terrain factors have finally aligned to cause this avalanche professional a debris pile of worry. Gulley One, Gulley Two and Schoolbus are particularly noted and have been the paths of large natural avalanches. These areas receive heavy use by all user groups and are at the doorsteps of the Tailgate parking lot. While the likelihood of a mass casualty event is increasing, so will incidents involving individuals and small groups.

A denial of the permit is warranted due to public safety and health, including the risk of avalanches and mechanized collisions associated with the event and site. The educational efforts of the local avalanche club, the permittee, and others will not decrease the risk of incidents in a substantial manner as it relates to Tailgate’s proposal. In some cases it will increase the confidence of those less skilled and those skilled but with no local knowledge.

A moratorium on new permits is justified till these issues are resolved. The state has an obligation to protect the public where and when there is sufficient reason. I believe such a situation exist on Thompson Pass.

While you consider the permit, I would like to suggest these recommendations as a condition of the state and permittee:

  1. Enforce snowmachine registration and safe operations with a full-time ranger or trooper dedicated to the event.
  2. Snowmachines are limited to “as slow as speed possible” within 100 yards of Tailgate parking lot(s) and 50 yards of others specifically skiers on skis, snowshoers and backcountry skiers while going to and from event venues such as Super Bowl on the common trail.
  3. Heliski operations should be eliminated from the permit area as they increase the chaos or general safety risk “on the ground” adjacent to Tailgate. With the addition of commercial ski planes and the current level of helicopter landings and take offs, this area is a basically an airport. FAA recommended safety zones around these operations should be addressed in the permit and depicted on the required site map by the permittee.

The risk of collisions between sledders and other sledders, hikers, skiers, etc in the area should be a concern now and will be more so if this permit is allowed.

After reviewing the application, I have a number of things that are worth noting. The lack of attention to details is important when considering the credibility of the applicant. It is not the state’s responsibility to fill out the form properly and collect supporting data. This last-minute application is nefarious and puts an undue burden on our state government for quick action. It provides little time to gather public input, review and make a decision. Asking for public comment on an incomplete permit application that will substantially change public recreation patterns is not acceptable..

Without these details, a resident of Alaska is unable to evaluate the application properly. Tailgate should re-apply for the permit and submit all required documents.

  1. The Short Term(Portable)Commercial Recreation Camps section of Tailgates permit is incomplete. They have erected a number of timber framed structures in the past for their own lodging and operation. These structure locations are not included on the site plan. The permitee did not provide dimensions of these chatels as required. When they leave the site in spring, two large metal storage containers of which they utilized for their operation remain. These are supposed to be removed. These metal containers are not mentioned in the permit.
  1. Under “Waste”, the permittee is incorrect. The nearest body of water is Ptarmigan Creek and is across the road from the LAS, running alongside the overflow parking lot provided by DOT. This stream has beaver, trout, and dolly-varden. It is the primary drainage channel for the north side of Thompson Pass.
  1. Wastewater disposal“ in porta-johns or in snowbanks for organic materials”. While the applicant thinks that disposing of organic waste may work in a controlled area such as a dispersed campground, 1000’s of people in an area the size of a football field disposing of hundreds of gallons of waste becomes problematic. Carrying containers with organic waste back and forth to common cooking areas from porta-johns or dumping waste in a nearby snowbank does not sound logical. During warm periods and through break-up, decaying snowbanks will be smelly, unattractive, covering the ground in decaying food bits and urine. In this case the worse pollution and public health hazards are the kind we cannot see. This does not work in refugee camps nor will it work at the current participant level or the levels proposed by Tailgate.

4. A topo map was not provided by the permittee. When the site is inspected, the state official needs a proper site map to insure compliance.  “Other items that MUST accompany the application package are:Map – a topographic map …. the map may be either 1:250,000 or 1:63,360.  

5.The permittee failed to give general locations or dates for “special” events related to their operation. Other major events are planned and permitted in Thompson Pass, IE Hill Climb, Fat Tire. Tailgate appears wholly unorganized and confused as to where or when they will do any off-site events. This is another example of a poor planning by the permittee. Side-events associated with the event should be denied. It is not the responsibility of the state or the public to coordinate permit approval based on the fuzzy time-lines of the perrmittee and last minute sponsors.  Credible major ski events take months of lead time, not weeks or days. The permittee is aware of this and should have his ducks in a row before including such events in a land-use permit of this scale.

In the past year you have received dozens of written comments about Tailgate. I encourage you to include those comments as part of your information gathering. They should not be ignored.

I believe Tailgate is asking to increase their participant numbers to a ridiculous number in hopes you will compromise and increase their current level a few hundred or more. I recommend that the current levels be cut considerably if the permit is issued.

Nearly ten years ago, DNR denied a permit application to build a large hotel at Worthington Glacier by a heliski operation after soliciting public input for months. That decision was supported by the public. The negative impacts of the latest Tailgate permit are substantially more than the hotel proposal and as it relates to short-term impacts. Public opinion on large scale development on Thompson Pass has not changed. The general public prefers the area remain primitive with limited commercial activities and regulations.

The State of Alaska has been negligent in regards to addressing safety and user conflicts in the Thompson Pass Special Use Area. The state has allowed this to develop despite the facts presented by myself and others. Let’s hope you finally make the right call and deny the permit based on an incomplete permit application and other safety and human health concerns.

Matt Kinney-Box 1540-Valdez,AK-9968