Helicopter skiing company cut high-altitude trees

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MAZAMA -- Numerous high-elevation trees -- some apparently hundreds of years old -- were cut down or topped in three sites 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 of the clearings 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 he expects their permit will be placed on probation. "We made a mistake and we apologize for it," 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.

"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.

A Forest Service employee hiked to one site and confirmed that 15 whitebark pine trees from 2 to 11 inches in diameter, five subalpine larch, a subalpine fir and three snags had been 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.

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.