Controversy brews over plan for helicopters in wilderness

2014-08-06T20:00:00Z 2014-08-07T09:28:09Z Controversy brews over plan for helicopters in wildernessBy Doug Kreutz Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Helicopters are strictly prohibited in federally designated wilderness areas, but state wildlife officials are seeking an exception from the U.S. Forest Service that would allow them to fly and land helicopters in the Pusch Ridge Wilderness north of Tucson.

Wildlife officials said helicopters are necessary for managing and monitoring — including capturing, when necessary — bighorn sheep that were released on the rugged ridge last November in an effort to rebuild a herd there.

Several groups — including the Friends of Wild Animals, the Sierra Club, the Arizona Trail Association and Western Watersheds — and a state senator, among others, have told the Forest Service they strongly oppose the use of helicopters in the wilderness, saying the flights would harm wildlife and ruin the outdoor experience for recreationists in the area.

A public-comment period ended on July 31, and a decision by the Forest Service on whether to allow the flights is pending.

THE CASE FOR HELICOPTERS

The Arizona Game and Fish Department is seeking approval for helicopter flights in the

Pusch Ridge Wilderness “for limited times of the year for a 10-year period,” said a public notice published in July by the Coronado National Forest, which oversees the 57,000-acre wilderness area.

“Helicopters would be used to manage existing bighorn sheep populations through monitoring, conducting research, investigating sheep mortality, replacing/retrieving malfunctioning collars, and capturing bighorn sheep,” forest officials noted.

Mark Hart, spokesman for the Game and Fish Department, said, “The need for helicopter capability is driven by the ruggedness of the terrain that the sheep prefer. If we didn’t think we needed that capability, we wouldn’t ask for it.”

Helicopters would provide vital support for wildlife officers monitoring sheep and checking on mortality signals from GPS collars in steep, remote terrain, Hart said.

It’s also possible that helicopter transportation to the ridge could “facilitate removal” of mountain lions found to be preying on sheep, “but that’s not the primary purpose of this,” he said. “Our intention is to use this in the most limited way possible. We’re not talking about regular helicopter overflights of the wilderness, but rather on a case-by-case basis.”

OPPOSITION TO HELICOPTERS

Allowing helicopters in the Pusch Ridge Wilderness would be “arbitrary and capricious” and “would violate the Wilderness Act as well as the act’s purpose,” says a detailed 15-page comment document sent to the Forest Service on behalf of three environmental groups and state Sen. Olivia Cajero-Bedford.

“This (helicopter) project will have major, long-term impacts to wilderness characteristics and should not be approved,” says the document, which also calls for a full environmental impact statement in addition to the draft environmental assessment.

The long-term impacts of helicopter flights, it says, include economic impacts stemming from a degraded human recreation experience, impacts of helicopter noise on bighorns and other wildlife, and effects from the recurring helicopter-assisted capture of relocated animals.

The document was signed by attorney Cyndi Tuell on behalf of the Friends of Wild Animals, SPEAK (Supporting and Promoting Ethics for the Animal Kingdom), Western Watersheds, and Cajero-Bedford. Most of these groups are opposed to the bighorn reintroduction project in general.

Among the document’s main points:

  • “Given that this project has been ongoing since late 2013 without the use of helicopter landings, there is a demonstrated lack of need for helicopter use in the
    Pusch Ridge Wilderness.”
  • “The heavy-handed management of bighorn sheep
  • planned by the Arizona Game and Fish Department does not allow the natural ecological processes to operate freely nor be primarily affected by the forces of nature.”

Tuell said there is no good reason to allow the flights, and the helicopter proposal is “a clear violation of the Wilderness Act.”

“I personally recreate in the area, and there’s already too much impact from urban encroachment. The wilderness doesn’t need to be degraded any further. It’s necessary to draw a line in the sand on this project and defend wilderness.”

Sandy Bahr, director of the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club, explained the club’s opposition to the helicopter proposal.

“We question the need to use helicopters in the wilderness and the assumption that they will benefit the bighorn sheep, and we are concerned that overall impact to the Pusch Ridge Wilderness will be negative,” Bahr said. She and other opponents of helicopter use in the wilderness have said the aircraft not only could disrupt the bighorns’ normal behavior but would also degrade the value of wilderness for human visitors with noisy flights and landings.

FOREST SERVICE VIEW

Even though helicopter flights are banned over wilderness areas, the Forest Service is considering the Game and Fish proposal for Pusch Ridge because the law allows for exceptions, a Coronado spokeswoman said.

“Congress acknowledged that there are times when exceptions are allowed to meet the minimum required administration of wilderness areas,” said Heidi Schewel, spokeswoman for the Forest Service.

“In this case,” Schewel said, “it was determined that yes, the action was necessary to maintain the population of bighorn sheep, which have historically been a natural component of the Santa Catalina Mountain ecosystem, including the Pusch Ridge Wilderness. Helicopters were identified as the minimum tool that could be used to achieve the objectives of the bighorn sheep reintroduction program.”

If the authorization is approved, how often and how long would helicopters fly and land in the wilderness?

“The number of flights cannot be quantified, but flights will be limited to 10 minutes in length,” Schewel said. “In order to promptly access the sheep in remote and steep terrain with extreme seasonal temperature variations, the use of helicopters is necessary. Landings will occur over a period of one to three days at a time. Based on best estimates, they do not intend to land more than 20 times per year over a 10-year period.”

The Forest Service received about 54 comments during the public-comment period on the proposal, Schewel said.

“We review comments in terms of issues raised,” she said, adding that the agency did not have information on the “number of commenters for or against the project.”

Schewel said there is no set time for a decision.

Contact reporter Doug Kreutz at dkreutz@tucson.com or at 573-4192. On Twitter: @DouglasKreutz

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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