Fatal heli-skiing tour went out of bounds
Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures (SEABA) co-owner Scott Sundberg this week confirmed his company was operating on Bureau of Land Management property during the March 3 heli-skiing accident that killed a guide and injured two others.
According to GPS coordinates provided to the Haines Borough, the accident took place on BLM-owned land in the Kicking Horse drainage. All BLM land in the Haines area has been closed to heli-skiing for the past several years, pending approval of the department’s Ring of Fire Draft Resource Management Plan.
Sundberg said he didn’t believe acting guide Tom Wayes knew he was on BLM land and that Wayes was probably confused because SEABA had access to that land before it was closed several years ago.
Assistant to the manager Darsie Culbeck said the accident occurred within the boundaries of the borough’s heli-skiing map. Sundberg said having the borough map include BLM land that is off-limits has added uncertainty and confusion when guides and helicopter pilots are trying to determine whether or not they are in a permitted area.
“We don’t ultimately make the helicopter pilot responsible, because, ultimately, the guides should know where they are,” Sundberg said.
Sundberg told BLM outdoor recreation planner Jeff Kowalczyk two weeks ago that SEABA, in addition to complying with any disciplinary action from the BLM and/or borough, would address the infraction internally, “whether that is demoting a guide or more map education or whatever needs to be done to make sure it isn’t going to happen again until we get our permit.”
Since the accident, SEABA has applied a border to its GPS system denoting BLM land to make boundaries easier to identify, Sundberg said.
Sundberg said although the helicopter landed on BLM land to drop off the five skiers, had the run been successful, it would have picked the skiers up on in-bounds state land.
Teresa McPherson, BLM’s acting field manager for the Anchorage office, said this week the agency is waiting to receive an accident report from the Alaska State Troopers before deciding how to deal with SEABA’s violation.
Erin Curtis, chief of the BLM’s office of communications, said she expects to receive the trooper report in about two weeks. “Depending upon what is in that report, we could potentially pursue administrative, civil or criminal avenues, if any apply.”
Culbeck said the borough will not decide whether to take any punitive action until BLM makes a decision. “The borough’s position is to wait and see what the BLM has to say. And we’re all waiting for the trooper’s report.”
Public information officer Megan Peters this week said the trooper’s investigation is still open. Trooper Sgt. Tim Birt is handling the case.