A Haines, Alaska helicopter skiing company broke the law several times when it took its clients on dozens of guided trips into restricted federal land in 2012, according to federal crime charges filed last week.
Owners of the firm, Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures, agreed to a plea bargain on Monday that admitted to unauthorized use of the land, which is a misdemeanor. The court documents noted that the company did not have the permits to operate on the land.
The illegal use of the land came to light last spring when a skier died there.
A ski guide named Christian Cabanilla died near a mountain peak on March 3, stated the Alaska State Troopers. Cabanilla was skiing that area with two skiers when the snow under them collapsed, killing Cabanilla.
The president of the company claimed that the man was skiing for enjoyment and was not acting as a guide at the time.
The accident was reported to be caused by an avalanche, but the skiers actually fell because the cornice under them collapsed.
Officials from the Bureau of Land Management discovered that Cabanilla was killed in an area that was restricted for environmental study. A special agent for that bureau started an investigation that discovered several other offenses on that land. The agent stated that the violations came to the attention of the bureau because of the death.
The plea agreement noted in court documents provided more details about what happened. The company had a permit to operate its skiing operation south of the Tsirku River near Glacier Bay National Park. The company paid fees for access based upon how much money it made.
But the permit expired seven years ago. BLM made that area off limits so it could study what the impact on the environment would occur if the land was used commercially. These studies would also help land managers to figure out what conditions they should put on such permits.
In 2011, the company applied for a new permit, but the company was told that the land still was closed. Then in two years, Cabanilla was killed there.
Interviews with the firm later, as well as reviews of maps and flight logs, discovered that the company had been flying on the closed government land without a permit.
In 78 total days of operation in 2012 and 2013, the company flew in guided groups of skiers into the closed federal land 54 times.
Based upon the revenue that the company earns, it would have to pay $11,500 for the use of the land. If the plea agreement is accepted, SEABA will have to pay that amount plus a $10,000 fine. The company will also be placed on probation for 24 months. It must give federal land managers regular GPS data that proves that the company is not encroaching on closed federal land.