MAZAMA — Numerous high elevation trees — some of them apparently hundreds of years old — were cut down or topped in the North Cascades last winter by a Mazama-based helicopter skiing company, officials say.
The Methow Valley Ranger District says North Cascade Heli-Skiing cut the trees to create safer helicopter landing sites, but the company was not authorized to remove vegetation in its permit to bring skiers into high elevations on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest west of Mazama. Backcountry skiers reported two more areas where trees were cut after the Forest Service met with the company and issued a notice of noncompliance for one of the sites in March, adding to the seriousness of the permit violation, said Jennifer Zbyszewski, recreation manager for the Methow Valley Ranger District.
Paul Butler, who owns the company with Ken Brooks, said after meeting with the Forest Service last week, he expects their permit will be placed on probation, but he’s not clear yet exactly what that means. “We made a mistake and we apologize for it,” he said, adding that the trees were cut so their helicopter could land more safely. “If people are worried about restitution or punishment, I believe it’s happening, and fairly severely. I’m not going to feel like we got off the hook,” he said.
The removal of these trees is significant, said Matt Firth, a backcountry skier who lives in Twisp and has skied in the area for some 30 years. The loss and damage to the trees is “going to be visible for many, many, many years, maybe decades,” he said.
This winter, backcountry skiers notified the Forest Service of one new helicopter landing site, where two dozen trees had been cut down.
A Forest Service employee later hiked to the spot and confirmed that 15 whitebark pine trees from 2 to 11 inches in diameter, five subalpine larch, a subalpine fir and three snags were cut or topped on a 6,800-foot ridge between Varden Creek and Silver Star Creek. In March, the Forest Service issued a notice of violation.
More recently, hikers and skiers located at least two more areas where trees were cut, prompting the Forest Service to meet with the company last week.
North Cascades Heli-Skiing has a permit to take skiers into high elevations of the North Cascades between Dec. 1 and April 30, for a maximum of 1,050 total skiers. A full day of skiing, including a minimum of seven runs, costs $985 per skier, according to the company’s website.
Butler said the noncompliance is an aberation. “Aside from this blip, we stand by our reputation in the community, and our record, not only our safety record, but in how we conduct ourself” in the back country.
He said the trees were mistakenly cut for a variety of reasons, including having a new pilot who worked on a similar operation in Alaska, where they were allowed to cut trees at landing sites for safety reasons.
He said in the past, they’ve been allowed to cut trees and branches in pick-up spots, usually in more heavily forested areas at the base of the runs. “I can guarantee we’ll be changing our approach to any sort of tree trimming in the future. We will now check with the Forest Service about any limb or tree we’re contemplating removing,” he said.
Zbyszewski said her agency will take additional action in light of the two newly discovered areas where trees were cut, one on the same ridge, and one on nearby Vasiliki Ridge.
She said the district is also working with the regional office to try to determine compensation for the cut trees. “They are a very slow-growing species on a very harsh site, so to reestablish trees is tough,” she said.
Zbyszewski said the Forest Service has not yet visited the two landing sites that reported more recently to determine how many additional trees were cut.
She said the Forest Service will reveal what additional action will be taken after the company is notified in writing, likely next week. “We are just in the process now of finalizing a letter to North Cascade Heli-Skiing. It will include everything that is going to happen,” she said.
Firth said he and other skiers try to share these remote areas with the helicopter skiers, and generally don’t oppose helicopter skiing.
“These high altitude ridges are pristine and spectacular examples of the east slope of the North Cascades, with very old whitebark pine and alpine larch that grow very slowly,” he said.
In one of the locations, Firth said he took photographs of one of the larger whitebark pine trees that was cut, and blew up the image and counted 278 rings, indicating that tree was 278 years old.
He said while North Cascades Heli-Skiing took the unauthorized action, he holds the Forest Service equally responsible for failing to fully monitor their permit.
K.C. Mehaffey: 997-2512