Proposed expansion of skiing and boarding festival near Valdez draws concern

This March, Tailgate Alaska will return to Thompson Pass, bringing skiers and snowboarders to Southcentral for the annual backcountry festival.

But the festival's permit application, up for renewal this year, has left some Valdez residents wary about event's effects on the environment and community.

Tailgate Alaska's five-year permit with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources expired in 2016, and is up for public comment now.

Creator and owner Mark Sullivan said Tuesday his goal for Tailgate, which will host its 10th annual event this year, is to share what he considers some of the best backcountry skiing and snowboarding available.

"I see that area as one of the best in the world," Sullivan said.

Most of the application is pulled verbatim from his last one, Sullivan said. Two changes, though, are causing some ripples in the community.

First, Sullivan hopes to increase the number of attendees to 3,000 people, a big jump from the 500 allowed in the last permit.


Second, he wants to expand the time frame during which the event can take place to 90 days between February and May, another big jump from the March 15-April 20 time frame previously granted.

Some in Valdez, which is about 30 miles from Thompson Pass and the closest responder, are concerned.

Increasing the number of users can potentially increase the amount of trash and human waste, which has already become a problem, said Valdez resident Lee Hart.

Hart is also part of Levitation 49, an Alaska nonprofit "dedicated to economic diversification through mountain sports," though she emphasized her opinions are not necessarily the organization's.

"We have concerns about the aftermath of Tailgate and its surrounding area," Hart said.

While the event provides trash disposal and portable bathrooms for paying attendees, others come to party during the same time in the surrounding areas, Hart said.

She said there was a "ridiculous amount of litter, including hypodermic needles" directly across from where the Tailgate event is located.

"I do think it's a potential problem," Sullivan responded.

Sullivan said the event takes responsibility for protecting the environment seriously. "I pick up every single cigarette butt and bottle personally," he said.

But he also said he doesn't feel responsible for picking up others' trash who aren't associated with the event.

"Our scope can only be in the area that we are permitted on," Sullivan said.

Luc Mehl, an Anchorage resident who is spending his second winter in Valdez, also voiced concern about the permit.

"The permit is lacking a lot of specifics about how you manage 3,000 people," Mehl said. He questioned how parking, camping and toilet access would truly be accommodated.

Heightened avalanche danger, due to more people and snowmachines, was another concern, Mehl said.

But Sullivan touted the safety of his event, where avalanche safety classes are included in the event package.

"We actually bring rules, we bring sanitation and we bring experienced people together," Sullivan said.

Sullivan said 3,000 was a "goal," one he didn't expect to attain.


Usually, about 500 people attend, Sullivan said, although in an application to Valdez for an event grant, Tailgate employee Dustin Huebner wrote the event expected to double in size this year.

With no state oversight, a solution is needed to pay for basic services.

"I think it's inevitable that more and more people will visit Thompson Pass," Sullivan said.

The 90-day permit was another issue for some.

Sullivan said the increase was simply meant to give the event more flexibility in scheduling, and the even't duration would remain the same.

Hart said the flexibility potentially given to Tailgate could cause issues for others looking to use the same area at other times of the year.

"We are all trying to cram winter events into a very tight time frame," Hart said. "It doesn't help the local event community at all."

Mehl worried the permit was too open-ended, forcing people to rely on good faith that the event would remain a 10-day affair, when the permit allows for much more.


Sullivan said he's banking on support from the community and attendees.

This year, Sullivan received a $40,000 grant from the city of Valdez, based on the idea that seasonal tourism draws revenue into the community, according to Allie Ferko, city public information officer.

Nicholas Campiglia, a Salcha resident who says he has attended the festival every year since 2008, sent in a letter of support commenting on the quality of trash control and safety instruction.

"Each year when I drive by the site on my way to Valdez for fishing, hiking, blueberry picking, and camping I stop and look over the area… Each year I am amazed at how well the area looks. How clean it is. How it never looks like we were there. Isn't that what we want?" Campiglia writes in a letter to the DNR.

Tickets cost $399, which Sullivan says doesn't cover costs to run the event. This year, Tailgate will convert to nonprofit status, he added.

Public comment closes Thursday. Comments can be mailed or emailed to Candice Snow.

s saying he picks up every bottle cap and bottle personally; he actually said he picks up every cigarette butt and bottle cap.

Laurel Andrews

Laurel Andrews was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, Alaska Dispatch News and Alaska Dispatch. She left the ADN in October 2018.