A coalition of concerned citizens and conservation groups today filed a lawsuit in Idaho federal court challenging the U.S. Forest Service's issuance of a permit that would dramatically increase the amount of commercial helicopter skiing allowed in a Wilderness Study Area on the Caribou-Targhee and Bridger-Teton National Forests.
"We are fortunate to live in a region where there are still wild places that allow people to get away from it all, and where wildlife that is extinct in the rest of the country still maintains a toehold," said Mark Poe, an attorney for Earthjustice, the law firm representing the plaintiffs. "If the Forest Service plan is carried out, we will have one fewer such place."
The helicopter skiing, or "heliskiing," activity would be centered in the Palisades portion of the Snake River Range that spans the Idaho-Wyoming border between Jackson Hole, Wyoming and the Swan Valley in Idaho. Congress has designated the majority of the Palisades a Wilderness Study Area. Under the permit, a single commercial heliskiing company based in Jackson Hole would have exclusive use of the Palisades for up to 1,200 skier-days of service every winter for the next decade.
"Congress specifically told the Forest Service to manage the Palisades Wilderness Study Area to preserve its 'wilderness character' as it existed in 1984," said Liz Howell of the Wyoming Wilderness Association. "But Forest Service records from 1984 plainly show that only about 100 heliskiers used the Palisades each year back then. How can a twelve-fold increase in helicopter activity preserve wilderness character?"
Merlin Hare and Debra Patla of Victor, Idaho, the individuals who joined the lawsuit, seek out the Palisades for quiet winter recreation such as backcountry skiing and snowshoeing. "The Forest Service study that accompanied the permit plainly says that helicopters will be flying around the Palisades on every day of the winter season that has good weather," said Mr. Hare. "If I want to find some peace and quiet down there, my only choice will be to go during lousy weather."
The participants in the lawsuit are also concerned about the impacts of the proposal on wildlife. According to the Forest Service study, the permit area provides habitat for rare animals including lynx, wolverines, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats. Helicopters will disturb those species when they are already stressed by winter conditions. For this reason, officials at Grand Teton National Park recommended that the Forest Service close certain parts of the permit area to protect bighorn sheep, but the Forest Service refused to do so.
The impacts on the wolverine are of particular concern. "Female wolverines den and give birth to their kits from February to April in exactly the same remote high-mountain country that helicopter skiers desire," said Kate Drexler of the Sierra Club. "Wolverines have been known to abandon their dens upon finding human tracks in the area. The noise and disturbance of repeated helicopter trips forecloses any wolverine denning where such intensive activity occurs."
The conservation groups seek a court order that would limit heliskiing in the Wilderness Study Area to the level that existed in 1984, and that would require the Forest Service to consider new options to reduce heliskiing impacts on wildlife and other winter recreationists.
"It's not our goal to shut down heliskiing operations on the Bridger-Teton and Caribou-Targhee national forests," said Fred Smith of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance. "We just want a solution that protects the interests of wildlife and restores the wilderness character of the Palisades."
Earthjustice is representing Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Sierra Club, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, the Wyoming Wilderness Association, Merlin Hare and Debra Patla in the suit.