Lodge pleads no contest to helicopter landings

In a July 31 incident involving helicopter landings in Kachemak Bay State Park, a Halibut Cove lodge has pleaded no contest to one count of landing a helicopter without a permit in the park. At a hearing held Oct. 9 with Judge Margaret Murphy at the Homer Courthouse, Stillpoint Lodge owner James Thurston, acting as the representative of the lodge, entered a plea of no contest. Murphy fined the lodge $5,000 with $5,000 suspended and put the lodge on probation for one year, requiring the lodge to comply with all state, federal and local laws. Murphy dismissed nine other counts of making unpermitted landings.

On Aug. 31, the state charged Stillpoint Lodge with 10 counts of making unpermitted landings, one for each alleged incident of landing a helicopter without a permit. The charges came about after when at about 12:50 p.m. July 31 a water-taxi operator reported seeing six helicopters land on Glacier Spit in the state park. In a criminal complaint, Park Ranger Jason Okuly wrote that he patrolled the area but did not see any helicopters.

After learning from the Federal Aviation Administration that a group of helicopters had landed at the Homer Airport, Okuly wrote that he went to the airport and contacted four helicopter pilots. On Aug. 8, Okuly contacted another helicopter pilot at the airport. All of them told Okuly they had landed at Glacier Spit and were flying clients for Stillpoint Lodge. Okuly wrote that the lodge organized a minimum of 10 unpermitted landings involving at least five helicopters. The state charged three pilots, Eric G. Lee, 45, Kurtis L. Fiegut, 30, and Taylor, Sammataro-Hutchings, 29, with landing a helicopter in Kachemak Bay State Park without a permit, but the charges were later dismissed.

On Aug. 6, Okuly contacted J.T. Thurston. Okuly wrote that Thurston told him he had told the pilots they could land on Glacier Spit below ordinary high tide. In a phone interview on Aug. 14 before Stillpoint Lodge was charged, J.T. Thurston said he had been under the impression that helicopters could land on the beach. The lodge had set up flightseeing tours. To minimize impact on Halibut Cove residents, lodge staff shuttled clients by boat to the beach and the helicopters.

“We want to have the lowest impact on everybody,” Thurston said. “We thought what we were doing was OK and wasn’t.”

Helicopter landings in Kachemak Bay State Park and Kachemak Bay Wilderness State Park have been controversial. In November 2015 a helicopter company, Norse Flight, applied for permits to land at up to 11 sites in the parks, including at Glacier Spit. In March of 2016 the Kachemak State Parks Board, an advisory board to the parks, recommended unanimously that the permits not be granted.

Helicopter landings on Grewingk Glacier have been permitted. The Alaska State Parks director reviewed Norse Flight’s application and issued a permit for landings on the glacier, said Jack Blackwell, Superintendent of State Parks, Soldotna, Kenai-Kodiak District. Helicopter landings are not permitted elsewhere and companies would have to apply for a permit. Fixed wing aircraft such as float planes or wheeled planes can land in the state park on saltwater or on beaches and on Emerald Lake, China Poot Lake, Petrof Lake and Hazel Lake, Blackwell said. In the wilderness park, fixed wing planes can land on salt water or on beaches or where authorized by the director, Blackwell said.

In an Aug. 15 email, Blackwell said Stillpoint Lodge contacted Soldotna parks staff by email. He said staff provided them with accurate information regarding the rules for fixed wing and helicopter aircraft.

Reach Michael Armstrong at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.