Fairbanks-area tourism company proposes helicopter trips to remote Tolovana Hot Springs

Two skiers in low light in mid winter next to short spruce trees
Skiers make their way toward Tolovana Hot Springs in 2012 in temperatures 35 degrees below zero. (Nathaniel Wilder/Alaska Public Media)

A Fairbanks-area tourism operator is proposing to set up a hot tub at the remote Tolovana Hot Springs and take visitors there by helicopter. 

Borealis Basecamp has applied to the Bureau of Land Management for a permit to operate west of existing cabins and tubs long managed by another company: Tolovana Hot Springs Ltd. 

“Our reasoning for doing this is we received requests both from our guests and guests who are not staying at Borealis Basecamp, for this service,” said Adriel Butler, who operates the lodging and outdoor recreation and aurora viewing business north of Fairbanks.

Tolovana Hot Springs is located about 45 air miles northwest of Fairbanks. You can’t drive to it. There’s a small public airstrip about a mile from the hot springs, but most people access the area by hiking, skiing or snowmachining a 10-mile hilly trail off Elliot Highway. It’s a wilderness trek, not everyone is up for, or capable of.

Butler wants to allow more people to skip the trek and fly to the hot springs instead.

Butler has applied to the BLM for a Special Recreation Permit to make up to three daily round-trip helicopter flights to Tolovana. The company is proposing to set up a hot tub and landing area on a small BLM plot west of existing cabins and tubs.

“I know that some people have said that we’re going to be hovering over top six times a day,” said Butler. “That’s a bit of fallacy. It’s not real.”    

Butler described a flight path along a river channel to the west, and a short landing and take-off operation.

“It never would be over tops of existing tubs,” said Butler.

Tom DeLong is president of Tolovana Hot Springs Ltd., which has operated tubs and cabins on land leased from the BLM for nearly 35 years. DeLong does not mince words in describing what he believes the effect of helicopter flights would be.      

“It’s gonna ruin the experience and it’s probably gonna ruin my business,” said DeLong. “You add the noise and you add the visual, it’s all negative and it’s all very impactful.”

DeLong said if the BLM approves the special recreation permit it could constitute a breach of lease.

“Our understanding is that we have the lease for Tolovana Hot Springs and that we make the hot springs available to the public, and now we see that they are gonna take a tiny sliver of the hot spring’s area and offer it to someone else,” said DeLong.

DeLong said he expressed interest in adding the small parcel to his company’s lease during a recent renewal process, but was discouraged from doing so by the BLM.

“Told not to bother about it. That it would really complicate the renewal,” he said.

BLM Outdoor Recreation Planner Stephen Taylor said the lease issue will be among those considered as the agency reviews Borealis Basecamp’s special recreation permit application.

“We’ll look into it,” said Taylor. “We’ll do an environmental analysis using the issues that are raised throughout the scoping process, and any other issues that we’ve identified internally.”  

The BLM is accepting public comments on the permit application until Dec. 15 at 5 p.m. Taylor said a decision is expected by late winter. Borealis Basecamp’s Butler said if it’s approved, he hopes to begin operations next fall.

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Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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