Southeast Alaska heli-skiing company used federal land illegally, charges say

Casey Grove
Anchorage Daily News /

A Haines helicopter ski operation repeatedly broke the law when it flew clients on dozens of guided trips into closed federal land in 2012 and 2013, according to charges filed in federal court Monday.

Owners of the company, Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures, signed a plea agreement also filed in court Monday admitting to the unauthorized land use charge, a misdemeanor. The court documents say SEABA, as the company is known, was well aware it did not have the necessary permit to operate in the area.

The illegal landings and skiing only came to light after a skier died this spring, a federal prosecutor said.

Ski guide Christian Arcadio Cabanilla, 34, died in an accident near a mountain peak March 3, according to Alaska State Troopers. Cabanilla was traversing the area with two others when the snow beneath them gave way and caused all three to fall, killing Cabanilla and injuring the other two, troopers said. The Associated Press, based on a KHNS-FM radio interview with SEABA President Scott Sundberg, reported Cabanilla was skiing for fun and not acting as the lead guide.

Though the accident was initially reported as an avalanche, the skiers fell because a cornice under them gave way, according to the plea agreement.

Bureau of Land Management officials who oversee the federal land -- southwest of Haines between Haines State Forest and Glacier Bay National Park -- soon learned Cabanilla died in an area they had closed for an environmental study, Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Steward said. A special agent with the BLM Office of Law Enforcement started an investigation into other possible land-use offenses, Steward said.

"The violation came to the attention of law enforcement because of the fatality," Steward said.

The plea agreement describes further what happened:

From 2002 to 2006, SEABA had a permit to operate south of the Tsirku River bordering Glacier Bay National Park. The heliskiing company paid fees for the access that were based on a percentage of its gross revenue.

But the company let its permit expire in 2006, and the BLM made the land off-limits that year so it could assess the potential impact of commercial use on the environment. Among other things, the studies help land managers determine what conditions to put on the permits, according to the plea agreement.

"Such conditions can also address issues of public safety," the plea agreement says.

In 2011, SEABA applied for another permit. BLM officials told the company the land was still closed. Then, two years later, Cabanilla died there.

The subsequent investigation included interviews with the company's employees, reviews of its flight logs and maps, and GPS data on the helicopter's locations that the company is required to file with the Haines Borough.

In 78 days of operation in 2012 and 2013, SEABA flew guided groups of skiers into the closed area 54 times, the plea agreement says.

Based on the company's revenue, it would have had to pay a minimum of about $11,500 in fees for that use. If the plea deal is accepted as written, SEABA will agree to pay that amount in restitution, plus a $10,000 fine. The company will also be on probation for two years, during which it must provide the federal land managers with GPS data "to ensure compliance with permissible ski boundaries," the plea agreement says.

While the agreement has been signed and filed in court, it is not official until a hearing set for Jan. 21 in Anchorage.

SEABA representatives, including Sundberg, the company president, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

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