As five cruise ships reach port in downtown Juneau, sightseers spill onto the docks, smitten by the Inside Passage's wild allure. While many come ashore to shop and stroll, countless others have their eyes set on one of the capital's most famous landmarks - the Mendenhall Glacier.
To reach it, more than 89,000 adventurers will enlist helicopter guides this year - typically paying $199 for a 55-minute ride - to buzz over the Tongass National Forest and land on the Mendenhall, one of several glaciers within the massive Juneau Icefield.
"Every day we get clients so blown away by what they've just experienced, they literally jump up and down with joy," says Tim McDonnell, vice president of tourism marketing for TEMSCO, Alaska's largest heli-tour operator. "People equate it to having a religious experience," he adds as a another set of tours lifts off. "They want to immediately book another flight, and many of them do."
Helicopter tourism is booming up north in a way perhaps only Alaskans, used to grand landscapes and travel by bush aircraft, fully appreciate. Bound for every kind of rugged destination, from the fjords of southeast Alaska to snow bowls outside Anchorage, heli-tours are exerting a presence that barely existed a decade ago. But while they're the basis of a multimillion-dollar spinoff industry for cruise-ship companies, ski resorts, and private aviation operators, heli-tours, increasingly, also represent the bane of existence for solitude-seeking Alaskans.
Their safety, too, has come under scrutiny - not just in Alaska, but elsewhere in the US where aerial sightseeing has taken hold, near Hawaii's active volcanoes and in the Grand Canyon - with critics pointing to mechanical failure, pilots' lack of experience, and bad weather. A deadly accident near Juneau in 1999 raised questions about pressures to fly despite inclement weather: Fog and rain, the twin torments of the Alaska coast, typically cause the cancellation of up to a quarter of all heli-tour flights, prompting companies to add flights on sunny days and, in turn, irk hikers below.
Just months ago, the Tongass Forest was pressured to complete an unprecedented environmental impact statement that many worry could establish the standard for heli-tourism management on millions of acres of public land here.
In his overview, district Forest Service ranger Pete Griffin suggested that helicopters have "an almost negligible impact," though Mr. Griffin has been given an earful by people who beg to differ, including urban Alaskans incensed by flight paths going over their homes.
The sonic impact, wildlife disturbance, and safety concerns in the wake of crashes have become so controversial in Juneau that residents in other secluded hamlets like Haines, Valdez, and Moose Pass, worry about a similar deluge overtaking their skies, too.
In Juneau, Mark Rorick and his wife, Patte, blame helicopters for driving them away from favorite hikes that lured them here decades ago. On a recent trek through the Tongass rain forest, the roar of approaching helicopters, flying in squadrons of five, was audible miles away. "Some compare it to the buzzing of mosquitoes and the industry says it operates with a 'soft footprint,'" says Mr. Rorick, a Sierra Club volunteer. "To me, this sounds like a war zone."
Later, glimpsing the Mendenhall from a Forest Service visitor center, even the splash of a thundering waterfall is drowned out by the whomp of propellers hovering over the glacier.
Industry claims that Griffin's record of decision - which, on the Tongass, grandfathers in 1999 levels and allows for increases over the next four years - represents the middle ground of compromise.
The Forest Service also sees it as an opportunity to generate dollars and jobs for local communities. "Both sides have often come in with boxing gloves on," TEMSCO's McDonnell says. "Instead of pointing fingers and telling people how mad they are, the key is to keep talking."
But environmentalists like Nicole Whittington-Evans of the Wilderness Society say that what the Forest Service is giving away has a value that money can't buy. "Commercial helicopter traffic is exploding across wild Alaska at industrial-strength levels, and the federal land management agencies will tell you they're ill-equipped to deal with it," she says.
The Forest Service says it bases decisions on the best available scientific information - though there have been few studies on the physical and aesthetic impacts of helicopter traffic.
Consumer demand from cruise ships - which this summer will bring as many as 770,000 passengers into Juneau alone, more than the entire population of of Alaska - has transformed the heli-tour industry. Without helicopters, McDonnell says, tourists would have no way to see some of Alaska's major wilderness attractions, given the amount of time allotted for shore visits.
But heli-tourism has largely fallen through the cracks of scrutiny, Forest Service officials admit. The agency claims the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is responsible for regulating flights - yet the FAA insists its jurisdiction does not include backcountry. Moreover, Forest Service officials say they lack the staff to ensure pilots comply with route and altitude specifications.
In Juneau, Rorick says volunteer monitors recently documented that violations were common. He doesn't blame cruise-ship passengers or visiting heli-skiers for taking the trips because he knows they'll remember the adrenaline rush all their lives. But he says they have no idea what they're taking from Alaska.
"The battle is basically over in Juneau - and those who love quiet lost," he says mournfully. "I just hope other towns in Alaska don't have to suffer the same fate."