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By Jerome Walker and Marcia Williams

After reading “A Dam Dilemma” in the Missoula Independent in mid-July, we decided to hike up to the Fred Burr Dam in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in Montana to see what all the fuss was about. One of us is 74 years old and the other is from New York, had only camped once and had never backpacked, but we were powerfully curious.

The first night we packed in to a campsite 7.5 miles up Fred Burr Creek. That day we saw two other backpackers, but the next two days we saw no human being and enjoyed the quiet found only in Wilderness. By lunchtime of the second day we were at the dam.

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The catwalk was constructed from nearby trees and not from sawmill boards.

We noticed straight off that the partly collapsed catwalk that the private company, Fred Burr High Lake Inc., wants to repair by using a helicopter to bring in 682 pounds of boards, etc., was constructed from on-site trees, not from sawn lumber. The dam itself, which doesn’t need repairs, was also constructed from on-site material. We wondered why the catwalk couldn’t just be repaired using local materials again, as there were plenty of trees and deadfall around. There was a spillway to take care of any overflow, so a federal judge’s recent assertion that “leaving Fred Burr Dam unrepaired could do more damage to the Wilderness than a single helicopter” didn’t make much sense either. (Federal Judge Donald Molloy recently ruled the Forest Service could authorize the private company to use a helicopter to transport materials for this minor repair to the dam.)

Hiking up to the dam we crawled over or ducked under some deadfall, but these need only to be cut with crosscut saws as a matter of routine trail maintenance for both horses and people to pass easily. At no point did we see switchbacks that would have been impossible for horses to negotiate, as the Forest Service maintains, and for sure there seemed no need for dynamite to “widen the trail”, as they also claim. We also observed manure (view a video of the where the manure was seen by clicking here) all along the trail up very close to the dam itself, so clearly some horses were able to make it up there fairly recently, as we figured nobody would helicopter in manure.

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This is the sharpest switchback we saw, which could be easily negotiated by a horse without any blasting with dynamite, as the Forest Service alleges would be necessary. In fact, very near this spot we found horse manure on the trail.

Later we read Renee Morley’s letter to the Independent in which Morley agreed, as just about everybody does, that “unnecessary helicopter flights are detrimental to Wilderness and degrade the law”. Then Morley reversed course and let the Forest Service off the hook due to their lack of funds to maintain trails so that horses can pass.

Still later we learned that the Forest Service had spent tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on an Environmental Assessment required by Fred Burr High Lake, Inc’s 2010 request for use of a helicopter in Wilderness.  This expenditure wouldn’t have been necessary had the Forest Service simply insisted in the first place that the corporation, which owns the dam and water rights, obey the Wilderness Act. This would require either packing in repair materials or using on-site materials, as had been done in the past. More importantly, it raises the serious question of why the agency is spending taxpayers’ money to analyze a private company’s project on its private dam?

Now the Forest Service has to spend more of our taxpayer money to defend against litigation brought against them for failing to uphold the law. Since these funds, which Congress appropriates to the agency to manage Wilderness, are being wasted, maybe that’s why there’s not enough money left to hire crews to maintain the hiking trails in Wilderness or to build new trails, which was not the case in the past.

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The Wilderness Act of 1964 (we will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year) is very clear about prohibiting ANY motorized equipment such as helicopters in Wilderness whatsoever except for rare life and death rescue situations and in rare cases where such use is necessary as the minimum requirement for proper protection and administration of the area as Wilderness. This principle is fundamental to the very concept of Wilderness. Maybe the Forest Service needs to take another look at the law and spend our taxpayer money more wisely. That could go a long way towards untangling the so-called “dam dilemmas” throughout Wilderness.

Jerome Walker, M.D.
National Board, Wilderness Watch
Missoula

and

Marcia Williams
Missoula


Jerome Walker’s introduction to Wilderness Watch and Wilderness began when his late wife, Melissa served 10 years on WW’s board, including a term as vice president. A retired neurologist, Jerome has concentrated on wilderness photography for the last two decades. His images can be seen on his website (
jeromewalkerphotography.com). 

Marcia Williams, who is new to Wilderness but learning fast, is from New York and currently lives in Franklin, TN, where she founded and heads up Independent Trust Company.  Because of her background in finance and investment she currently is serving on Wilderness Watch’s finance committee. 

 

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Heavens Peak Lookout in Glacier National ParkGlacier National Park recently decided to move forward with its plan to stabilize the non-operational Heavens Peak Lookout, within recommended wilderness, despite the objections of Wilderness Watch, two retired Glacier NP rangers, and the majority of those who commented on the environmental assessment. The project includes the use of a helicopter (up to 12 flights) and a generator. Wilderness Watch objected to the plan based on its disregard for the Wilderness Act (which prohibits structures and the use of motorized vehicles/mechanized equipment in Wilderness) and Park Service policy (which requires recommended wilderness to be managed as Wilderness).

A local newspaper article stated that opposition to the project was based on, “the belief (emphasis added) that preservation of cultural resources and the use of helicopters are not permitted by the Wilderness Act,” when in fact, opposition was based on NPS wilderness policy and federal law. A Wilderness Watch member and former Glacier National Park biologist responded to the article with this excellent Op Ed:

The Inter Lake article “Glacier Park lookout restoration gets green light” (9 June) did not accurately describe the reasons for broad opposition to this project. The article stated: “most opposed it based on the belief that preservation of cultural resources and the use of helicopters are not permitted by the Wilderness Act.”  It is not a question of “belief.” At issue is the accurate interpretation of the letter and intent of the Wilderness Act. Glacier National Park already has proposed this lookout area for inclusion in legal Wilderness. Although a Civilian Public Service crew built the lookout, they simply provided the labor. Put a plaque in a visitor center acknowledging the crew.  But are the crumbling ruins of the Heavens Peak Lookout, built in 1945 and used for only a few years, a cultural resource of such significance that it trumps the values of Wilderness? The Wilderness Act does not permit unnecessary agency use of a helicopter; can helicopter use be justified for this project as if it were essential, e.g., has the same importance as a rescue mission? The decision to approve the project is based on elevating a minor cultural resource to importance it does not warrant and cavalierly dismissing impacts to wilderness values.

This confusing duplicity is nothing new. The National Park Service (NPS) did not support the inclusion of national parks in the Wilderness System when the Act was signed in 1964 and the agency has never demonstrated a commitment to the Act. NPS Historian Richard Sellers has written: “Although many of the National Park Service’s rank and file enthusiastically supported the wilderness bill, the bureau’s leadership seems to have drifted from outright opposition to reluctant neutrality.” The NPS has made this shift by conveniently writing inordinate flexibility into its management standards.

Eight years after passage of the Wilderness Act, the NPS advocated Wilderness classification for Glacier. However, Director Hartzog and Glacier Superintendent Briggle wanted the proposal to include an aerial tram or gondola route from the Many Glacier Hotel to Grinnell Glacier, and new “wilderness” chalets within 100-acre enclaves at Cosley Lake, Debris Creek, Fifty Mountain, and the head of Kintla Lake. Public opposition sunk these schemes.

The NPS proclaims that helicopter flights, a generator, and other activities associated with the lookout reconstruction will have “No Significant Impact” on the environment or on wilderness characteristics. This conclusion is not supported by the facts.  A careful reading of the Environmental Assessment (EA) reveals that short shrift is given to impacts on visitor experiences, natural quiet, natural landscapes, and wildlife. Even when the reconstruction work has been completed, insults will continue with periodic helicopter flights for maintenance. There is no plan to actually “use” the rebuilt lookout. Rather than the old structure continuing to gradually disintegrate, the restored lookout will serve as a permanent blemish on the ridge skyline.

According to the EA, the NPS does not plan to reconstruct the trail to the lookout because it is within the area of highest density of grizzly bears in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. Yet we are told that construction workers will bushwhack from Packers Roost to a construction camp. Inevitably, hikers will bushwhack their way to see this intrusive monument. Is this responsible management of prime grizzly habitat?  The route from the planned camp to the Lookout is up a steep talus slope, where the trail will have to be reconstructed to avoid multiple erosion scars. Current NPS wilderness management policy (available on the internet) stresses the importance of determining whether a proposed project has an adverse impact on the preservation of natural conditions including the lack of man-made noises, the assurance of outstanding opportunities for solitude, and the assurance that wilderness will be preserved and used in an unimpaired condition. The basic policy is clear and the Heavens Peak Project does not meet the policy’s criteria for approval. However, the NPS relies on policy exceptions that apparently allow a superintendent to conjure up justifications for antithetical projects such as Heavens Peak.

Wilderness qualities, and the opportunity for visitors to appreciate and enjoy wilderness, depend on the standards by which an area is managed, not simply on naming an area “Wilderness,” as Superintendent Cartwright advocates.

Riley McClelland, West Glacier

Green Mountain 'Lookout', Glacier Peak Wilderness, WA

Wilderness Watch recently alerted its members to the U.S. Forest Service’s (FS) newly constructed Green Mountain “Lookout” in the Glacier Peak Wilderness in Washington’s North Cascades (and also mentioned a number of other outlaw projects we’re dealing with). It was built with freight helicopters and power tools along with a healthy dose of arrogance. It’s actually not intended to serve as a lookout: the last time a person manned a lookout in the area was the early 1970s. No, this was built to be a visitor center of sorts, complete with its resident ranger leading nature hikes, and directly contrary to the legal mandate that there be no structures or installations in Wilderness.

The agency would have gotten away with this egregious breach of wilderness ethics and law had not a Wilderness Watch member and former wilderness ranger discovered the project on his own. You see, Forest Service officials plotted it in private, avoiding public process or participation, thinking they might sneak their unlawful activities under the radar.

While the administrators who approved this structure may view it as a minor intrusion, the pictures alone demonstrate that it is anything but. This is a steel-reinforced human-built structure high atop a mountain ridge deep in Wilderness in clear violation of the letter and spirit of the law.

This isn’t the first lookout at this wilderness site. What follows is a brief history:

• The original lookout was constructed around 1933.

• By the late 1970’s the FS had determined it was no longer serving effectively as a fire detection lookout and it was abandoned.

• The Washington Wilderness Act of 1984 expanded the Glacier Peak Wilderness to include Green Mountain.

• The 1991 Forest Plan contained a standard that read, “Stabilize and preserve the Green Mtn. Lookout. Accept non-conforming structure (We’re guessing there wasn’t anyone paying attention to wilderness rules!).”

• In 1998, a brief decision memo was signed for use of motorized equipment for repair (reconstruction) of the lookout. With that decision in-hand, the FS used a grant from the White House Millennium Council’s Saving America’s Treasures program to construct a new foundation, catwalk, railings, siding, etc.

• In 2002, the whole structure was seriously damaged and was removed from the Wilderness. This was done with a helicopter, but without any public notification or analysis.

• In 2009, the new structure was built. Again, no public notice or environmental analysis. It was all done using helicopters to transport materials, and motorized equipment for the construction. It’s obvious from the photos that the materials used in the reconstruction are mostly new (A former ranger describes it as “95% new material including some re-used from the reconstruction ten years earlier.”).

What is it about the law’s mandate that there be “no structure or installation” built in Wilderness that the Forest Service doesn’t understand? We don’t intend to let them get away with this. And with your support, we’ll make sure they don’t.

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