SEABA agrees to pay $21K to BLM
A Haines helicopter skiing company has agreed to pay more than $21,000 in fines and fees for flying on federal lands closed to the activity 54 times during 78 days of operation during the past two years.
Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures signed a plea agreement containing the allegations, which was filed recently in federal district court in Anchorage. The case stems from a federal investigation of the company triggered by the heli-skiing death of Christian Cabanilla March 3.
The company also agreed to a two-year probationary period. A federal court judge must still approve the plea deal.
“This investigation revealed that despite knowing that SEABA was not permitted for helicopter skiing on BLM-managed lands in this area, SEABA operated commercially on BLM-managed land on approximately 54 dates in 2012 and 2013 out of 78 total days of heli-ski operations in these two seasons,” the plea agreement says.
In a statement from attorney Tracey Knutson this week, SEABA described the encroachments as “minor, infrequent and inconsequential.”
“(A recent news article) intimating that 54 incursions over a 78-day period had occurred was misleading,” Knutson said. “In reality, a similar number of client ski day land boundary infractions occurred over a couple year period so that transit into federal lands was infrequent. The boundary intrusion most often was only for helicopter access with the actual ski runs occurring on state land,” Knutson said.
Cabanilla and four others were skiing on federal lands closed to commercial heli-skiing when the fatal accident occurred. Two of the other skiers were seriously injured. The trip in the Kicking Horse drainage was a non-commercial outing led by SEABA guides.
The accident occurred on a ski-run on BLM-managed land that the company had named for one of its frequent customers. It had been included on a map SEABA had submitted for a 2011 BLM permit that was not approved.
SEABA officials have previously complained that the BLM is holding up the company’s use of the land.
According to the plea agreement, the company had a permit for operating on BLM land from 2002 through 2006, then allowed the permit to expire. Following expiration of the permit, BLM closed the land to heli-skiing “pending an environmental study to determine the impact of increasing the amount of permitted heli-ski operations. SEABA applied for a new permit for these closed area in 2011. SEABA was informed of the closure and did not obtain a permit.”
According to the plea agreement, after the fatality the BLM initiated an investigation that involved interviews with SEABA employees, a review of the company’s log, maps and GPS flight data collected in accordance with its Haines Borough permit.
“Based on a percentage of SEABA’s gross revenue and the percentage of time SEABA operated commercially on BLM lands in 2012 and 2013, SEABA owes a minimum of $11,556 in user fees to BLM,” according to the plea agreement. Under the agreement, SEABA also agrees to pay a $10,000 fine and would be placed on two years’ probation during which it would be required to submit GPS data to the agency to prove compliance.
The plea agreement says SEABA could have been fined up to $200,000, with five years’ probation.
Former Haines Borough Assembly member Norm Smith, an industry critic, said this week that the borough should revoke SEABA’s permit. “Fifty-four times is not just an out of bounds issue. Shades of Dave Button,” he said.
Assembly member Jerry Lapp said he’d oppose such an idea. “I wish (SEABA) would watch themselves a little more closely, but I blame it on the BLM. They’ve taken way too long to do whatever they say they’re doing (in closed areas). Why are they closed? Why shouldn’t they be open to the public? If I had my way, it would all be open to heli-skiing except the critical habitat area for (mountain) goats.”
Lynn Canal Conservation president Eric Holle said the federal investigation “verifies what we’ve been saying for years. SEABA doesn’t pay attention to the regs. They operate as though they are above the law.”
“The significance for the borough, I would hope, is that they need to step up their monitoring for compliance. It was like pulling teeth to get Mark Earnest to do spot checks on these guys. Last year he only did two spot checks on SEABA and two on Alaska Heliskiing. Undoubted there were violations on state land (during the same time). The borough is in charge of that. They should look,” Holle said.
Interim borough manager Julie Cozzi said this week she’d include information about the plea agreement in information to assembly members, but said she was not planning at this time to make recommendations concerning borough management of the industry.