Many Montanans were rightly outraged when a couple from Bozeman buzzed their helicopter up and down the South Fork of the Flathead River before setting down in the Bob Marshall Wilderness to go fishing. The Schwerins — a former banking executive and her partner — landed their chopper where helicopters are clearly prohibited by the Wilderness Act and where pilots are required to know as much.
Their cavalier attitudes and irresponsible behavior certainly deserve prosecution. The U.S. Forest Service did impose a $500 fine, though that was certainly less painful for the helicoptering couple than a parking ticket would be for you and me.
But it isn’t just privileged folks with helicopters at their disposal who show blatant disregard for Wilderness. The Forest Service itself is a top offender. Case in point is the Forest Service’s recent decision allowing helicopter access to Canyon Lake in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in Montana.
There, the Forest Service is authorizing 32 helicopter flights to haul equipment and materials for a private irrigation company to repair a dam in the Wilderness. This small dam, which was located at the stream outlet of a natural lake, was built decades ago without the use of motorized equipment. Horses and human muscle power did the work. When the dam was rebuilt in the early 2000s, the work was again largely done the same way. That’s how it’s supposed to be.
When the Wilderness Act was being discussed by Congress, the issue of these small dams on natural lakes in the Selway-Bitterroot and a few other western Wildernesses was discussed. The Secretary of Agriculture told Congress, “Water developments for the storage and diversion of water for irrigation, domestic, and other uses have been allowed in these wilderness-type areas. The works generally have been constructed and maintained by means which did not involve motorized transportation.” The Secretary then promised, “We would construe the provisions of [the Wilderness Act] as permitting the continued maintenance of these existing projects by means which would not involve motorized transportation as in the past.”
But, that’s not what’s happening on the ground now. Once a proud defender of Wilderness, the Forest Service has largely abandoned its commitment to doing things the Wilderness-way.
It’s become cavalier in its approval of helicopter use in the Wilderness and dismissive of the impacts of such intrusions, essentially sacrificing wilderness values and traditions for convenience, as evidenced not only at Canyon Lake, but also numerous others in the Bitterroot canyons. Helicopters are replacing the pack string, and chainsaws are replacing the crosscut.
The Schwerins, as wrong as they were, aren’t the only ones who show disregard for the values underlying the Wilderness Act. The Forest Service is increasingly proving itself to be the biggest violator of all and an irresponsible steward of these special places.
Gary Macfarlane is a member of the board of directors of Wilderness Watch and ecosystem defense director for Friends of the Clearwater.
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