Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness is the crown jewel of America’s National Wilderness System, boasting over a million acres of pristine wilderness, and when the Forest Service says “no motorized vehicles,” they really mean it. But no wilderness that size can be effectively policed, so the Bob Marshall Wilderness’ essential wildness relies on ordinary citizens to preserve and protect it. That’s where Backcountry Hunters & Anglers comes in, providing a $500 cash reward to those who successfully report the illegal use of public land to the Forest Service. The latest fund recipient is John Morris, a Montana horseman who recently captured images of a pilot using a private helicopter to access a fishing hole in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. Morris’s photos resulted in the pilot’s conviction, qualifying him for a monetary award via BHA’s Reward Fund.
The pilot in question, a Bozeman, Montana resident, has apologized, claiming that he had become lost and wasn’t aware that he had landed his helicopter in a wilderness area. He pled guilty to a federal misdemeanor and paid the maximum fine–$500, which is (interestingly enough) what BHA offers tipsters.
What’s the big deal about motorized vehicles? Under the federal Wilderness Act, motorized and wheeled vehicles, including motorbikes, ATVs, and snowmobiles are prohibited, and aircraft are limited to specific airstrips. Aircraft are required to stay 2000 feet above the ground when flying over wilderness areas. That overflight rule also applies to Wild & Scenic Rivers, which includes the South Fork of the Flathead.
Morris was hunting black bear by horseback in the upper South Fork of the Flathead Valley in the Bob when he saw a low-flying helicopter land on a gravel bar and two individuals fishing. “My family has enjoyed the solitude of the Bob for three generations now,” said Morris, of Kalispell. “Witnessing a helicopter illegally landed on the South Fork completely degraded my experience. In my mind, for me, that place will never be the same.”
Morris approached the individuals, informed them they were breaking the law, and photographed the helicopter, including its identification number. He later turned over the information to the Forest Service.
“While we are disappointed with the light sentence in this case, we applaud John Morris’s actions in defense of our public land,” said John Sullivan, the volunteer chairman of the Montana chapter of BHA. “We hope this is a learning experience for this individual and for other pilots,” continued Sullivan.
Sullivan expressed disappointment with the size of the penalty, which he noted amounts to less than one hour of rental time for a typical helicopter flight. Still, Sullivan said the incident would have escaped notice entirely had it not been for Morris.
“The Bob Marshall Wilderness is among the most famous and beloved piece of all our public lands,” Sullivan said. “If we cannot protect it from illegal abuse, then what can we protect?”
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