SEABA fined for landing at fatal accident site
The Haines Borough fined Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures (SEABA) $500 last week for operating on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property without a permit during the March 3 heli-skiing accident that killed a guide and injured two others.
Manager Mark Earnest, who can fine heli-skiing companies up to $1,000 per violation, said he decided on $500 because the company wasn’t merely operating on the border of the allowed area.
“I just looked at the circumstances and felt that that was justified... It rose to a higher level than being just a little outside of the map. So that was the decision,” Earnest said.
The accident occurred in the Kicking Horse drainage on a ridge near Garrison Glacier.
SEABA co-owner Scott Sundberg said this week he hasn’t yet spoken with Earnest about the fine, but he intends to. Sundberg said while he probably won’t appeal Earnest’s decision, he did find the fine excessive.
“I think it’s a little much. I think it was an error due to some confusing and conflicting maps... In my opinion, it was more of a minor deal. $500 is halfway to $1,000,” Sundberg said.
Earnest fined SEABA $200 each for two out-of-bounds landing violations on March 19, bringing the company’s fine total for the season to $900.
Sundberg has been in conversations with Department of Justice attorneys and BLM investigators for the past month regarding the March 3 unpermitted landing. Sundberg said he doesn’t get the impression the matter will become criminal or result in charges.
“They haven’t really dug too hard or done anything dramatic. They’ve just been more than anything doing an informative search. It’s not a criminal or litigated thing at this point. That is where it stands,” he said.
Department of Justice attorneys and BLM officials would not elaborate on the investigation. “We are continuing to investigate the matter in cooperation with the U.S. Attorney’s office, and given that this is an ongoing investigation, it’s inappropriate for us to comment any further,” said BLM public information officer Tom Jennings.
Sundberg speculated BLM involved the Department of Justice because a fatality occurred during the unpermitted landing, so BLM is trying to minimize any liability. “They are worried a little bit that that might come back to the feds,” he said.
Sundberg said he has emphasized during the conversations his desire to maintain a good working relationship with BLM, as he doesn’t want to jeopardize SEABA’s ability to get a permit if BLM land around Haines is reopened to heli-skiing.
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 SEABA is presently collaborating with Alaska Heliskiing representatives to identify problem areas in the borough’s heli-skiing map. The two companies are working together to bring an amended map to the borough for consideration.
The assembly can amend the heli-skiing map annually by resolution. Proposed map amendments are due by May 31 and must include an illustration of the area and rationale for the amendment in fewer than 500 words.