The wilderness-ethics-vs.-dam-maintenance issue that surfaces periodically shows no sign of being resolved soon, but for the time being it will be handled on a case-by-case basis.
The case this time around concerns needed repairs to the Holloway dam located in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness about eight miles west of Florence at the head of the Sweeney Creek drainage.
The Sweeney Creek Water Users Association proposes to fly construction materials and other equipment via helicopter into the wilderness in five trips over the course of a single day. Since the federal Wilderness Act prohibits the use of motors in the wilderness, permission must be granted by the Forest Service.
The Stevensville Ranger District, which has jurisdiction over the Holloway dam, received six comments on the proposal—three for and three against.
Raymond Smith, North Zone ID Team Leader with the Stevensville Ranger District, says the comments run the predictable gamut. The opponents, which include Wilderness Watch and Friends of the Bitterroot, don’t want the wilderness violated by the noise and pollution of machines, particularly since there is no emergency. The proponents, “say ’yes, we need to fix the dam before it becomes a problem,’“ according to Smith.
Though maintenance of aging wilderness dams is an ongoing need—and an ongoing battle between water users and environmentalists—Smith says the Forest Service is not developing a blanket policy to settle the argument. Such a policy would be handy, he says, “but each one of these dams in the wilderness has its own peculiarities. While you could make something blanket, whatever you thought of yesterday could be the next day, ‘oh, you didn’t cover that.’“
The peculiarity of the 77-year-old Holloway dam lies in its construction. Unlike most wilderness dams, which are earthen, the Holloway dam is made of rock. Earthen dams typically pose leakage problems; the Holloway doesn’t leak, but pressure is building up on the culvert underneath. Smith says he has no idea how many landowners benefit from the irrigation water it impounds.
The Forest Service categorizes dam maintenance in three ways: routine, non-emergency and emergency. The Holloway dam fits into the second category. There is no emergency, but the repairs have gone beyond routine
That lack of emergency is one reason that Friends of the Bitterroot (FOB) and Wilderness Watch have objected to the use of a helicopter and a battery-powered drill, says FOB’s Larry Campbell.
Smith says the Stevensville Ranger District is currently beset by numerous personnel changes and a heavy workload. His team will analyze the six comments and come up with a decision—helicopter or mules, battery-powered drill or hand tools—possibly by mid-May.