Borough: 6 heli-ski violations in season
The Haines Borough recently leveled a combined $1,200 in fines against two heli-skiing companies for six permit violations in March and April.
The borough fined Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures (SEABA) $400 for two out-of-bounds landings on March 19. It also fined Alaska Heliskiing $800 for three out-of-bounds landings and one incident of deviating from a flight path.
For both companies, manager Mark Earnest assessed each violation at $200 apiece.
SEABA’s violation came to light after a random GPS spot check by the borough. SEABA was asked to provide GPS data for March 19 and April 2, two randomly selected dates, and showed no violations on the latter. Alaska Heliskiing provided random GPS data for March 3 and March 13, and no violations were found.
However, resident Carolyn Weishahn submitted a complaint to the borough on April 13 regarding Alaska Heliskiing’s April 12 flight though the Klehini Valley and three out-of-bounds landings in the Little Jarvis Glacier and Saksia Glacier areas.
“The helicopter was flying right across from my house, which overlooks the Klehini River... If they’re flying in front of the range, that’s not the route. I also saw some tracks on a high-elevation bowl that appeared to be outside the designated heli-ski area,” Weishahn said.
Though Earnest determined the helicopter’s flight through the Klehini Valley constituted two violations (up the valley and back down), he excused one due to “safety concerns.”
Earnest said Coastal Helicopters, the company operating under contract with Alaska Heliskiing at the time, indicated it returned down the valley to avoid dark shadows on the helicopter’s normal route.
Heli-ski firms are required to notify the borough within seven days when forced to operate out of bounds. Alaska Heliskiing did not report its flight deviation for the “safety concerns,” and wasn’t additionally fined for failing to do so. Alaska Heliskiing did not return phone messages this week.
“The borough accepted that explanation as a safety issue and didn’t fine them for that particular flight. I just think that if we have requirements for reporting and you don’t have a consequence for not reporting, they will continue to (not report) in the future,” Weishahn said.
Earnest can impose a fine of up to $1,000 for each violation. He said he used his judgment of circumstances to determine $200 each was fair.
“In my estimation, the evidence showed they were operating outside of the boundaries, but fairly close to the designated areas... You look at the circumstances and you look at the impacts. They were operating over the line, but not miles outside,” Earnest said.
Earnest also decided to request only two random spot checks. Asked why two was an adequate sample size, Earnest said, “That’s the number that was picked to start with. We started with two and we’ll see if there’s reason to pick more.”
Eric Holle, vice president of Lynn Canal Conservation (LCC), recently wrote an email to Earnest expressing LCC’s disappointment in the borough administration’s “woefully inadequate” systems for enforcing and monitoring the compliance of heli-ski companies.
“In our opinion, both the fines imposed by the borough and the number of days selected for spot checking are inadequate, and make us question the borough’s commitment to the responsible management of this industry that the public has long insisted upon,” Holle wrote.
In his email, Holle asked whether Earnest would obtain GPS data for April 11 and 13, days bookending Alaska Heliskiing’s violations. Earnest said this week he has not yet made a decision whether to request more GPS data from either company. “We always reserve the right to look into it more, and we haven’t made the decision yet.”
Weishahn suggested in a recent letter to the borough that it use two spot checks a month as a starting point, and based on the results, determine whether more or less checks are needed. She also requested that data be posted before the end of the heli-ski season (May 1) so residents can see if companies are following the rules.
SEABA co-owner Scott Sundberg said while he thought the fines levied against his company were justified, the borough bears some responsibility for not dealing with these “problem areas” brought up during the heli-ski work group that designed the borough’s heli-ski map.
For example, Sundberg said in the Kicking Horse area, where both of SEABA’s March 19 violations occurred, the lines drawn by the borough are problematic and don’t reflect what he claims were agreed-upon margins during the heli-ski work group.
“No one’s happy with a fine. But I feel the borough is holding some responsibility in that it hasn’t done enough to correct these situations that have been pointed out since the closure of the heli task force in 2011,” Sundberg said.
Sundberg said he will bring the boundary lines to the borough’s attention this month, when companies and citizens can propose alterations to the heli-ski map. “We’re trying our best, but in all reality the borough has a long way to go in terms of effectively managing this industry,” he said.