The Bureau of Land Management’s recent decision to permit commercial helicopter landings on a block of the agency’s land south of town has raised questions about the Haines Borough’s authority to regulate heli-skiing on federal lands.

According to five GPS spot checks conducted in April and May, Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures twice landed outside of the borough-approved heli-ski map in an area referred to by BLM as the “south block.” Although the landings were outside of the borough’s map, SEABA had a permit from BLM to operate on the federal land.

Haines Borough manager David Sosa contacted BLM about the conflicting permits. BLM’s response was that state and local governments may not prohibit land-use activities on federal lands that the federal land managers have authorized, Sosa said.

“Because they had a BLM permit to operate there on those days, that trumps (the borough’s map restrictions),” Sosa said Wednesday.

Consequently, SEABA wasn’t fined for the two out-of-bounds landings, Sosa said.

This spring, BLM opened more than 66,000 acres of land south of Haines to heli-skiing, an area that has been closed to the activity since 2009. The agency issued permits to SEABA, Alaska Heliskiing and Alaska Mountain Guides to use the “south block” for the 2015 season. The permits were good for 100 landings each, with the possibility of renewal in 2016.

The south block runs through the Takhinsha Mountains above the Takhin River. It also encompasses a small portion of the Chilkat Range near Davidson Glacier.

BLM field manager Dennis Tietzel said the agency’s lawyers have explained to him that when a borough or local government puts restrictions into place that are contrary to an authorized use of federal land, the federal use wins out.

“The legal precedence as it has been explained to me is that BLM’s authorization would take precedence over the borough’s restrictions,” Tietzel said

As far as BLM is concerned, this isn’t really the agency’s issue, Tietzel said.

“The borough didn’t come to us and say, ‘We’re writing you a ticket because you authorized someone to land on BLM land in an area (the borough) doesn’t allow.’ They went to the operator,” Tietzel said. “So until somebody brings us in, we aren’t going to necessarily interject ourselves.”

Before issuing the permits this spring, BLM representatives came to Haines in October and spoke with Lynn Canal Conservation, Chilkat Indian Village, the Chilkoot Indian Association and other agencies, Tietzel said.

“We reached out to various groups within the community to explain what we were doing and what was being proposed and what we thought we were able to authorize,” Tietzel said. “At that point in time we did not get any objections.”

Haines resident Deborah Vogt, a former assistant attorney general, said it was her understanding that the most restrictive regulation is the one that takes precedence. “It seems to me (the south block) is in the borough, and the borough regulates within the borough regardless of land ownership. We regulate on state land, we regulate on federal land,” Vogt said. “We regulate as a government, not as a land owner.”

“I’m not the borough attorney, but that’s not the way I would approach it,” she added.

SEABA co-owner Scott Sundberg did not respond to calls for comment.

The GPS checks that triggered discussion of the issue also revealed two out-of-bounds landings by Alaska Heliskiing, Sosa said.

The violations occurred on March 24 near the Kelsall River. The landings were outside of the borough’s approved area for commercial heli-ski operations.

Sosa fined Alaska Heliskiing $150 per violation.

Alaska Heliskiing co-owner Ryan Johnson responded via email to Sosa’s notification of the violations. “On March 24, we had a brand new pilot … who did not know she couldn’t set down and wait on the other side of the valley. We corrected the issue right away and she didn’t do it again,” Johnson wrote.

Sosa said while the incident was corrected and not repeated, it is still the responsibility of the company to ensure its pilots follow prescribed routes and stay in-bounds.

GPS data was taken from Alaska Heliskiing and Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures on April 4, April 6, March 22, March 24 and March 30. The five annual spot checks are mandated by code.