SEABA fined $21K, put on 4 years of probation
Local heli-ski company Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures on April 17 agreed to pay more than $20,000 in fines and be placed on four years of probation after pleading guilty to repeatedly and intentionally trespassing on Bureau of Land Management property.
The dozens of illegal landings came to light after a BLM Office of Law Enforcement investigation into the death of SEABA guide Christian Cabanilla revealed the March 2013 fatal accident had occurred on BLM land off-limits to heli-ski companies.
Assistant U.S. attorney Andrea Steward recommended in her April 10 sentencing memo that SEABA be sentenced to two years’ probation, $11,556 in restitution to BLM and $10,000 in fines.
However, during the April 17 sentencing hearing, Judge Timothy Burgess imposed a harsher sentence, bumping the probation to four years and requiring SEABA to create a compliance plan to protect against future unauthorized use of BLM land.
“(Judge Burgess) wanted a longer period of time to ensure they are complying with everything. They can seek early termination, usually; they still have the potential to get off after two years,” Steward said.
Regarding the compliance plan, SEABA attorney Tracy Knutson spoke at the sentencing hearing and said SEABA was already taking steps to ensure compliance “including disassociating with certain guides they had worked with in the past,” Steward said.
One of SEABA’s probation conditions is that it maintain GPS data and provide it to BLM upon request to ensure the company isn’t continuing to operate out of bounds, Steward said.
Steward said cases of trespassing on BLM land are usually resolved outside of criminal courts, with the BLM ticketing companies or users for violations instead of pursuing criminal charges.
“The reason this wasn’t handled that way is because through the investigation it was apparent there was a pattern and practice of this over time,” Steward said.
When the 2013 accident occurred, SEABA also misrepresented the situation by phoning BLM and claiming Cabanilla’s group had “accidentally” been skiing on BLM land. Steward said this misrepresentation also led to the matter being prosecuted criminally instead of administratively.
Federal prosecutors charged SEABA with one count of unauthorized use of BLM land in December. An investigation into SEABA’s maps, GPS flight information, flight-following logs, guide meeting notes and company financial information revealed SEABA was on BLM-managed land approximately 54 days out of 78 total operation days in 2012 and 2013.