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Op-ed: Alpine Air LLC permitting

I became involved with the Alpine Air permit proposal on May 25th.  I was urged by my partner to write a letter to the state, as were many people, because we had knowledge that the business had been operating on state land without a permit.  Since then the situation has revealed itself to be much more problematic.

Regardless of how you feel about more helicopters operating in the Seward area, the major underlying issue here is that they were operating before they were granted a permit.  They were, and are, operating illegally on state land. We need to send a message as a community, as a state, that sidestepping the permitting process is unacceptable as it is in place in order to protect equanimity across businesses and to promote sustainable use and tourism activities on state land.  

On May 13th the state was contacted by another local operator because helicopters were seen offloading gear onto the opposite side of the ridge less than a mile away from Turning Heads Kennel.  Turning Heads is on Godwin and the glacier across the ridge is referred to as Fourth of July Glacier. The site of their glacier dog sledding tour is on state land.

After speaking with Deb Essex, the co-manager of Alpine Air LLC, she confirmed that helicopters had been offloading gear onto the glacier prior to obtaining their land use permit.  She was under the impression that Alpine Air could legally offload gear onto state land as long as they moved their camp every 14 days. Essex was referring to a commercial recreation permit (CRP).  This permit allows commercial operators to utilize state land temporarily. Such outfits might be horseback riding, guided fishing tours, etc. On or before 14 days the camp must be moved at least two miles from the original site.  At the time that Alpine Air began offloading their gear onto Fourth of Glacier they did not have a CRP nor do they have one today.

On May 16th, three days after being notified of the operation, the state issued a cease and desist letter to Alpine Air. The expectation was that they would remove all traces and cease reservations until a permit was granted.  Alpine Air referred their reservations to their Girdwood office, however they continued to keep their gear on the glacier. Essex stated that they planned to move the gear on Monday June 3rd to two miles north east of their original location.  When I spoke with Candice Snow (case manager for LAS 32849 – Alpine Air Proposal) at DNR on Thursday May 30th she was unaware that there was gear on the glacier and verified that whether Alpine Air moved their gear didn’t matter since having it up there in the first place was illegal.  They did not have a CRP, had not applied for a CRP, and even if they had, they would have been operating outside the bounds of its limitations.

It was also on May 16th that Alpine Air submitted the application fee for their land use permit; finally completing their permit application. Although Essex stated that they submitted their application in March there was no record of it because the application was incomplete or either not started at all: applications are not processed with DNR until the application fee is submitted.  

My first question is: why were they allowed to apply for a permit when they had already ignored the permitting process?  As a local citizen I would feel more comfortable knowing that companies were reprimanded for illegal activity rather than supported in their endeavors to expedite a public process and limit public and legal interventions.   

Alpine Air was started by Keith Essex in 1991.  They were originally based out of Girdwood. On May 24, 2018 Pt Capital became the majority shareholder of Alpine Air LLC.  Keith and Deb continue to be the ‘on the ground operators’ of the business running operations from their Girdwood office. Keith is the president of the board of Alpine Air with Pt Capital.  According to Deb, she and Keith are in charge of Alpine Air LLC for all practical purposes. How can a company who has a solid track record and decades of experience operating in Alaska public lands commit such an oversight when it comes to the permitting process?

Today, on June 2nd, Alpine Air LLC still does not have a land use permit. However, their camp is still established on the glacier and by the online reservation platform still accepts payment for their Seward Dogsled Tours. Yet today a friend made a reservation attempt and stopped when a credit card was required.  Alpine Air is still accepting Seward reservations. On the glacier currently are three large structures, established fencing around a dog kennel, kennels, and at least one snowmachine. When I spoke to Ms. Essex about this last week she claimed that reservations were not being taken and that they were referred to the Girdwood office.

Regardless of where you stand on the industrialization of tourism in rural Alaska, we need to set a precedence for incoming businesses.  We have a responsibility to hold businesses accountable to the permitting process that was established to protect state lands and allow public involvement.  Alpine Air LLC was and is operating without permission on state land. They should not be granted a permit to operate in Seward at this time.

To file a comment with DNR contact Candice Snow:

Include permit application number: LAS 32849

This Post Has 2 Comments
  1. Response to Tara Swanson’s Op-ed

    Thank you for being a fellow concerned citizen of Seward. I appreciate this opportunity to follow up with your concerns.

    We are currently complying with the regulations of State of Alaska DNR, and do not have an established camp on the glacier. State of Alaska DNR is aware of our supplies on the glacier. Alpine Air Alaska LLC is not operating tours on Fourth of July Glacier, nor are we taking any reservations. We have applied to operate a glacier dog sledding camp with the optimistic hope that a permit will be granted this month.

    Alpine Air Alaska was established in 1991 and we have successfully operated a glacier dog sledding camp in Girdwood since 2001. We do understand the permitting process on both State of Alaska and USFS land. We have been transparent during our two year research and operating plan to create a base in Seward. This year we took steps to secure a permit to operate on Fourth of July Glacier but we did not see the process through correctly. This was brought to our attention by the State of Alaska DNR, and we took immediate action to cease operation and re-apply for the permit correctly.

    Establishing a glacier dogsledding camp was first discussed in Seward by Lorraine Temple in the late 1990’s, and Alpine Air Alaska flew Lorraine in a Cessna 185 to Godwin Glacier to scout a location. This was before we switched from fixed-wing to rotorcraft. From there, she added Kenai Mountain Air to use helicopters when possible. The popularity for this tour has grown, and there have been one or two helicopters companies (including Alpine Air Alaska) providing flight support to glacier dog sled tours ever since. Fourth of July Glacier offers a sound and visual barrier from Godwin Glacier dog camp, a solid glacier structure that retains snow throughout the season, and a wide valley entrance that provides a safe flightpath.

    We are seeking this permit in response to the growing requests for glacier dogsledding tours along with the increase in general Alaska tourism numbers. We would like to provide a small camp creating an up-close experience with sled dogs, and a beautiful bird’s eye view of the glaciers around Seward. From our 20 years experience in Girdwood, and four years in Seward, we know this is a bucket-list tour for many visiting guests.

  2. Hi Tara. I read your article and am a bit surprised at the length you went to in order to be unwelcoming. The crux of the matter is this; a new business in town was alerted to an error in their proceedings and they are correcting it. When one looks past the inflated drama to the heart of the situation, the core issue is actually about the reputation of a community–how do Seward’s residents want their City to be known?
    What goes around comes around–we all have experienced this. If a city (or an individual) is welcoming and gracious, that positive atmosphere will be noticed–by guests, residents and prospective residents/business owners and reciprocated. What kind of reputation are you culturing for the city of Seward through this repetitively negative article about a new business in town?

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