Forest Service Playing Glacier Traffic Control
JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) _ The federal government is trying to avert an aerial traffic jam over the Juneau Icefield, a 1,500-square-mile wilderness of glacier and rock where overcrowding once seemed an unlikely problem.
Four years ago, a helicopter company began carrying tourists to the icefield for short walks, an experience otherwise gained only with ice climbing skills and equipment. Last summer, nearly 15,000 people took the tour, and now five helicopter companies are vying for pieces of the business.
When cruise ships dock in Juneau, the helicopters are so busy they fly in formation between the heliport and the ice.
Ice climbers say the whirlybirds’ buzzing ruins the wilderness, Juneau homeowners say it invades their peace and quiet, and the U.S. Forest Service is being called on for traffic control.
″Most people wouldn’t have thought that the icefield would ever become a site for concerns like this,″ says Vivian Kee, a Forest Service wildlife biologist who is working on a traffic plan for District Ranger Stephen Ambrose.
In a few months Ambrose has to decide whether to open the icefield to more helicopters, find landing sites that would route them away from homes, ice climbers and other airplanes, or set up quiet zones for the wilderness- seekers.
The helicopters already have cut the business of companies catering to a more rugged brand of tourism.
″It’s one of the few ways that large numbers of people can get up there, so we support the helicopter tour. But it’s entirely incompatible with our glacier tour,″ said Ken Leghorn, president of Alaska Discovery. The adventure travel company scratched an ice tour off its itinerary this year because clients resented the helicopters’ intrusion.
″Some days the noise is almost constant. It was not a good experience to be offering people. We were offering them a back-country experience on a glacier and we couldn’t, in good faith, take them on it,″ Leghorn said.
Temsco Helicopters Inc. started its ice walk four years ago and saw it boom beyond all expectations as it caught on with cruise ship passengers, said manager Bob Engelbrecht.
A $105-per-person tour takes 45 minutes. A guide points out such landmarks as ″Suicide Falls,″ a treacherously tilted icefall, and steers people away from crevasses and other hazards.
The Juneau Icefield fringes Alaska’s Inside Passage waterway for more than 75 miles, and in several places is reachable by road and footpath or by boat through narrow fiords.
Ms. Kee estimates up to 3,000 people a year take independent or charter trips on the ice.
But the cost and rigors of getting there keep popular tours close to the Mendenhall Glacier, a tongue of the icefield that flows into the backyard of Juneau’s biggest residential neighborhood.
Temsco, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Forest Service have worked out flight plans over a mountain ridge dividing two neighborhoods to reduce noise complaints. Ms. Kee says the dozen or so complaints she used to get each summer from homeowners have dwindled but she worries that more flights could wear out homeowners’ tolerance.
A parking lot a scant mile from the glacier face and a stream of tour buses carrying 135,000 people a year to the Mendenhall have earned it the nickname of the ″drive-in glacier.″
For helicopter companies, it’s by far the best fly-in glacier, as well.
″It’s close, it’s convenient, there are a lot of nice things to see up there,″ said Engelbrecht. Temsco occassionally lands on two other glaciers, one north and one south of Juneau, but most passengers have heard of the Mendenhall and want to go there, he said.
And with helicopter flights costing $500 to $650 an hour, even a few minutes more in the air to farther ice adds cost to the tour, he said.