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Illegal Helicopter Landing in Wilderness Area Spurs Bill for Harsher Penalties

Photo credit: John Morris
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Following a controversial helicopter landing in Montana wilderness, lawmakers proposed a bill to lift the maximum fine by nearly 4,000%.

After a helicopter landed in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, Senator Steve Daines is in the process of writing a bill that would increase the maximum fine for an aerial landing in the wilderness from $500 to $20,000.

The move comes after angry citizens learned of a couple that landed their private helicopter to fish in the Bob Marshall in May. They received a federal misdemeanor charge for the offense, which carried a maximum fine of $500.

Montana citizens and public lands advocates cried out that the fine is a mere slap on the wrist for anyone who can afford to fly a private helicopter in the first place. Now, things look like they might change for future offenders.

Strange Sight: Helicopter in Bob Marshall Wilderness

It’s a sight that wilderness travelers wouldn’t expect to see: A low-flying helicopter lands within wilderness boundaries, and two folks step out, fully kitted out for a fly fishing adventure. But that’s exactly what Montanan John Morris saw while on horseback in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

Morris approached the couple — Sam and Sara Schwerin — informing them that they were breaking the law governing motor use on public lands. The couple pushed back on Morris, saying they were below the high water line — an argument that did nothing to refute Morris’ objection to their illegal use of a helicopter on restricted public land.

Morris managed to snag photos and video footage of the couple as well as the helicopter’s identification number. Morris later turned the information over to U.S. Forest Service authorities.

On June 16, Sam Schwerin, 48, was charged with a misdemeanor and fined $500. He and Sara apologized for the mishap, saying they had believed they had landed outside the wilderness boundary.

Outrage Over Illegal Helicopter Landing

The Bob Marshall Wilderness; photo credit: Howard Hecht

The 1964 Wilderness Act specifically prohibits all motorized use within wilderness boundaries, providing an exception for some designated airstrips that were grandfathered into the act at the time of its writing.

Although Schwerin stated he didn’t realize he was within wilderness boundaries, landing in a national forest area requires written permission from local officials. Additionally, aircraft must stay 2,000 feet above both wilderness areas and wild and scenic rivers while flying.

The public backlash to the landing was swift and fierce. But the relatively small maximum penalty of only $500 drew even more ire. Social media erupted in anger over the minimal fine.

Today, more than 13,700 people have signed a petition asking for much harsher penalties, including forfeiture of both Schwerin’s pilot’s and fishing licenses, a $1,000,000 fine, and more.

Daines Announces Bill to Increase Penalty

In response to the outcry, Montana Senator Steve Daines this week announced he was writing a bill that would increase the maximum fine for an aerial landing in designated wilderness to $20,000.

“Montana’s wilderness shouldn’t be taken advantage of and exploited as a playground for the rich and famous,” Daines said.

“Montanans value wilderness for the solitude it provides and the adventure that is involved to travel to so many beautiful locations. My bill will make folks with a deep pocket think twice before entering our pristine wilderness areas unlawfully.”

It’s an interesting move for Daines, who, as recently as 2018, advocated for eight 1960’s-era airstrips in the Bob Marshall Wilderness to reopen, a move Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue denied as a potential breach of the Wilderness Act as it stands. There is currently one historic airstrip open within the complex, and its ongoing utility dates back to before 1964.

On the other hand, Daines also recently co-sponsored the lauded Great American Outdoors Act, a public lands spending bill that passed through the Senate and currently awaits a House vote.

Moving Forward

A plan has yet to arise for the bill. But the incident remains crisp in the hearts and minds of Montanans. Morris recently received a $500 bonus of his own for reporting the violation and getting a conviction, thanks to a privately funded rewards program organized by the nonprofit Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.

The OHV Reward Fund offers the same amount as an incentive to anyone who reports illegal motorized use on public lands that leads to a conviction. But, as Morris notes, the reward doesn’t erase the impact a violation like this can have.

“My family has enjoyed the solitude of the Bob for three generations now,” said Morris of his nearby hometown, 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.”

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