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Tackling Air Traffic on Alaska's Glaciers

Bush pilots grumble over a law that limits glacier landings. Similar curbs to address overcrowding are being tried at other national parks.

On any sunny summer day in this frontier town of 300, the only thing that drowns out the usual hum of mosquitoes is the sound of small planes buzzing overhead.

Anyone with a plane equipped for glacier landings and the proper skill can make the quick aerial hop to the glacial flanks of Mount McKinley and other peaks in Denali National Park. And many do. On busy days, some aviators complain, a few of the park's glaciers seem more like Chicago's O'Hare Airport than peaceful wilderness. And almost all of the eight carriers that make regular glacier landings in the park have experienced mishaps, like near-collisions and plane flips in sun-softened snow.

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But this autumn, a new law may force more pilots to do what locals call the "Talkeetna hang" - sit around town. The code is Alaska's attempt to tackle a problem that resonates nationwide - overuse of America's parks.

As many parks begin charging entrance fees, and places like the Grand Canyon consider charging companies for flyovers, the law limiting the number of glacier landings appears to be the logical next step for Denali.

The idea, says J.D. Swed, chief ranger for Denali National Park's mountainous south district, is to figure out "what can we do now that prevents this place from becoming another Grand Canyon."

Under federal law, the National Park Service may not restrict overflights of Denali or other national parks in Alaska, in part because aircraft provide most of the access to the wilds of Denali's trailless south district.

But the Park Service does have the right to limit glacier landings, Mr. Swed says.

The plan, which will go into effect in October, will grant concessions to air-taxi companies already landing on Denali's glaciers, possibly allocating landings between companies and specific sites. The particulars will be ironed out after it begins.

And while the law will be reevaluated after two years and either scrapped or extended, curbing an industry that was created by Alaska's legendary aviators in the 1950s and '60s may prove a testy process.

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An un-American rule?

In Talkeetna, flying is a proud tradition that has more to do with fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants barnstorming than auto pilot and in-flight meals. Here the idea of government intervention makes some a little uneasy.

"In some ways, as a business owner, it's kind of nice because it gives you limited competition," says Keli Mahoney, part-owner of McKinley Air and a transplanted Bostonian who came to Alaska to fly planes and mush dogs.

"But I don't know, I don't think that's really the way that America was based," she says.

Yet many of the pilots who buzz past Denali's steep faces, wind-whipped couloirs, and snowy seracs are undecided on the proposed plan.

"It's kind of a mixed blessing. In some ways it protects us. In other ways it hinders us," says Jay Hudson, who manages Talkeetna-based Hudson Air. "Usually, when you have a concession it gets to be a lawyer-to-lawyer type of thing."

Lawyer-to-lawyer-type things are few and far between here in the shadow of Mt. McKinley. In fact, when Mr. Hudson's father, Cliff - the founder of Hudson Air - took umbrage with Don Sheldon, the founder of Talkeetna's first air-taxi service, the dispute was settled with fists, not affidavits.

Flying the frontier

But Talkeetna's legacy is more about flying than fisticuffs. Today, most of the glacier flying is done by a new generations of pilots, like Jay Hudson, many of whom began flying as children.

"His experience and knowledge of the place is incredible," said Swed, who estimates he has flown 100 hours with the younger Hudson.

The pilot knows his way around more than the tops of McKinley and nearby peaks and spires - "because anybody can do that" - but also through the lower levels of snow-filled canyons, sometimes the only clear areas during periods of bad weather.

The flyers are an elite group. The burgeoning sightseeing business notwithstanding, their best-known passengers are climbers attempting to reach the summit of McKinley, North America's tallest peak.

Doug Geeting, owner of another Talkeetna air carrier, says he is undecided about limits on glacier landings. For now, he says, he's too busy accommodating the crowds of tourists who want a close-up view of the mountain known here by its Athabaskan Indian name, which means "The High One."

"Business will always be good. Lots of tourists," he adds.

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