Opinion » The Outsider

How much heli is too much heli?


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With the rise in another method of backcountry access comes yet another controversy. I feel like we've been here before...

As reported in Pique July 12, some in the community of Pemberton are currently up in arms about Blackcomb Helicopters' (BH) application for a 30-year Commercial Backcountry Recreation Tenure. BH is looking to add sanctioned, guided heli-biking to its roster of activities (which currently includes sightseeing, heli-hiking and heli-golf) within its existing Crown Land Tenure.

The biggest opposition comes from the Pemberton Wilderness Association (PWA) and the paragliding community. The remaining vocal opposition is from local residents displaying a spectrum of educated responses to grouchy NIMBYism.

Let's start with the paragliders. Local West Coast Soaring Club member Stefen Miller said there are up to 30 paragliding pilots that fly past Mount Barbour in a single day. I'm no aviation expert, but that sounds like quite a lot of air traffic that isn't necessarily communicated to helicopter pilots flying multiple trips per day in the same area. Safety for all involved should be the top priority, but I didn't see the words "paragliding" or "paraglider" pop up once in BH's Management Plan Summary.

From PWA president Allen McEwan, there was particular concern over alpine areas and "traffic that goes straight down the mountain and creates a path for water to follow." Having seen commercial trail builders at work, I can attest that the archaic method of scratching fall-line trails into the earth doesn't really exist anymore outside of rogue building. Good trail builders (at least in this part of the world) view flowing water as the biggest eroder (ahead of bike tires) and take ample steps to ensure proper drainage and armouring. That said, the responsibility can't be covered in perpetuity at the time of building. Such trails in the alpine need to be continuously maintained to stem the inevitable rutting and widening. That responsibility—in the context of commercial helibiking—should fall on the operator.

There's also the potential for wildlife impact. We've seen the alarmist response to mountain bikers spooking grizzly bears pop up before in the South Chilcotin Mountains, but there were never any real data to back it up. When I wrote about that subject back in 2014, (Pique Newsmagazine, July 31, 2014) Wildlife Research Ecologist Bruce McLennan didn't have a definitive answer when he replied to my query about bikers and grizzlies getting along.

"If people can recreate wisely in grizzly country, then things can work out. If people do not recreate wisely, then bears end up being killed," he wrote.

But when we're talking about helicopters, it's the very loud noise of rotors and jets—not marauding two-wheeled mountain bikes—that spook the wildlife. BH acknowledges this in its Management Plan Summary: "Fright responses can be energetically costly and can push animals off of preferred habitat in the short term. If noise disturbance persists, these effects can become permanent, causing animals to move out of the area entirely. Alternatively, some animals can adapt to the noise, particularly if is predictable and is not negatively reinforced (Penner, 1988)."

I decided to look up that academic source and it lead me to an interesting 2002 document titled, "Effects of Motorized Recreation on Grizzly Bears and Rocky Mountain Ungulates: An Annotated Bibliography." From the 17 academic sources listed, here's some of the information I gathered about helicopters in mountain goat habitat:

• Impacts of helicopter over-flights on mountain goats may include: increased energy expenditure; reduced fat accumulation; and changed physiological condition. These factors affect overall reproduction and survival.

• Goats reacted to flights that were greater than 1.5 kilometres in distance away, indicating a higher sensitivity to helicopter traffic than other open terrain ungulates.

• Goats are capable of habituation under certain circumstances when disturbance is localized and predictable; however, they do not habituate to the unpredictable, loud disturbance created by helicopters.

BH noted that there is limited information about local mountain goat populations and address the potential conflicts with an "adaptive management approach." To give you an idea of how many goats we're talking about, the best info I could find was a mountain goat count in 2013 that estimated the population in the Upper Lillooet River area at 244.

Helibiking is a pretty cool experience. I've only been once to Mount Cartier in Revelstoke, which this year also happens to be going through a controversial debate over a commercial guiding application and the forecasted impact to local fauna.

I don't think helibiking should be banned, as alpine mountain biking shouldn't just be exclusive to those that have the ability to access it self-propelled. But I would prefer to see helibiking limited to a maximum number of flights per day and not turn into the financially driven enterprise that is heliskiing. BH wants to guide multiple groups with up to four drops per day, which works out to total of 3,600 runs per season at full trail buildout after 2023. That's comparable to a small heliskiing operation.

It's the growth of mountain biking that's fuelling the demand for aircraft-assisted descents in the backcountry. But like most indulgent things, it's probably best we do it in moderation.

Vince Shuley thinks helicopters are great, in moderation. For questions, comments or suggestions for The Outsider email vince@vinceshuley.com or Instagram @whis_vince.