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Bitterroot

A dam dilemma

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District Court Judge Donald Molloy denied a preliminary injunction earlier this month against helicopter access to the remote Fred Burr Dam in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness northwest of Hamilton. Dam owner Fred Burr High Lake Inc. requested approval for a 45-minute overflight to transport as much as 682 pounds of materials to repair the dam's catwalk and log boom. But environmental nonprofits Wilderness Watch and Friends of the Clearwater challenged the proposal last year, alleging that the overflight violated the non-motorized nature of the area.

Molloy ruled July 1 that the transport of repair equipment to Fred Burr Dam via helicopter is "the option which least disturbs the area's wilderness character." The use of packstock—a suggested alternative in Fred Burr High Lake's 2010 request to the U.S. Forest Service—would require widening numerous switchbacks through blasting. The Forest Service has ruled out similar transport options on repair projects at other wilderness dams in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.

"It is difficult to imagine any impact, other than momentary, of a helicopter flight lasting less than one hour," Molloy wrote. It's an assertion that Gary Macfarlane, ecosystem defense director for Friends of the Clearwater, finds particularly troubling.

"The idea that taking something up by horses is more damaging than a helicopter flight in wilderness turns the Wilderness Act on its head," Macfarlane says. "Helicopters are prohibited, horses are not."

The wilderness dams on the west side of the Bitterroot have been a point of contention for environmentalists for years. Most of the dams are more than a century old, built from primitive materials to store water for farms on the valley floor. They require constant and costly upkeep; repairs to the Tin Cup Dam in 1998 totaled nearly $1 million. Still, Molloy pointed out, leaving Fred Burr Dam un-repaired could result in more damage to the wilderness than a single helicopter.

That position doesn't stand with environmentalists, who also stress that it isn't just one helicopter. In recent years, the Forest Service has repeatedly approved helicopter access to several wilderness dams. The agency has even cut public comment short on such proposals at Tin Cup and Canyon Creek through emergency declarations. While Molloy acknowledged the access granted to other dams in the past, he found the Fred Burr case to be "isolated, transitory, and insignificant," and claimed it would not contribute to "a collectively adverse effect on the Wilderness as a whole."

"If they could justify a helicopter for something as simple and as easy as this little catwalk," Macfarlane says, "then helicopters can be justified for just about anything."

Macfarlane adds that the environmental groups are "definitely looking at an appeal."

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