A helicopter can be used to fly in equipment to repair a failing dam in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, despite environmentalists’ objections that it goes against federal laws protecting wilderness areas from mechanized or motorized use, a federal judge ruled.
The helicopter’s flight will take less than an hour and it won’t land in the southwestern Montana wilderness, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy wrote in his ruling this week.
That plan will be less disruptive to the area’s wilderness characteristics than the trail improvements that would be required to pack in the more than 1,100 pounds of equipment, the judge wrote.
Wilderness Watch and Friends of the Clearwater sued the U.S. Forest Service in June 2012 in an attempt to block the use of the helicopter. The environmental groups said it would violate the federal Wilderness Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Forest Management Act.
The wilderness act bars the use of motorized or mechanized tools and equipment — with certain exceptions — to preserve designated wilderness areas’ character and solitude.
The Fred Burr High Lake Dam is a private dam within the 1.3 million-acre Selway-Bitteroot Wilderness. It was built in 1914 and its catwalk and log boom are deteriorating.
The Forest Service in 1973 denied a request by the dam owners to use a helicopter to access the dam and in 1996 approved the use of a helicopter to transport personnel and equipment.
In this case, the agency accepted the application by the dam’s owners because packing in the new catwalk and boom equipment would require blasting and extensive work on the trail below the dam, irreversibly altering the environment there.
By contrast, the helicopter flight would leave the land “untrammeled,” Molloy wrote.
Leaving the dam to deteriorate would mean a possible breach or failure that would also degrade the area, he wrote.
Molloy ruled the use of the helicopter meets the wilderness act’s exception allowing such use when it is necessary to meet the minimum requirements for the administration of an area.
He dismissed the environmental groups’ lawsuit and denied their request for an injunction.