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Heli-fishing fine hardly a deterrent

| June 18, 2020 1:00 AM

When a Bozeman couple was caught red-handed after landing their helicopter in the Bob Marshall Wilderness to do some backcountry fly-fishing, most of Montana had the same reaction: Total disappointment with a side of outrage.

The Hungry Horse News reported that two horsemen came upon the Bozeman couple’s helicopter last month during a ride near Black Bear. They had seen the helicopter buzzing over the South Fork of the Flathead River earlier that day, but at about 3:30 p.m., they saw the craft parked on a gravel sand bar and a couple fishing nearby.

Federal law prohibits motorized or mechanical use in wilderness areas, with the exception of the airstrip at Schafer Meadows in the Great Bear — some 20 miles from where the couple landed.

The horsemen confronted the duo, snapped a photo for evidence and later turned them into authorities. The Forest Service promptly investigated the incident and on Tuesday announced that the pilot would face a $500 fine - the maximum penalty for such a violation.

Of course, that amount is laughable and hardly a deterrent for similar infractions going forward - but it’s the penalty provided by the law as it’s currently written.

For their part, the couple issued an apology shortly after the investigation launched, saying they had briefly stopped in a location they had believed to be outside the wilderness boundary. “We made a mistake,” they said.

A pretty big one in the minds of most Montanans, and it’s reasonable to assume that the public backlash they’ve received over the past few weeks far outweighs the $500 “slap on the wrist” handed down by the Forest Service.

Montanans cherish wild spaces, especially The Bob — a vast conglomerate of roadless mountains, clean rivers and solitude. It’s one of the few places on earth where a person can truly get away from it all — something that’s in high demand these days.

If you think the penalty for heli-fishing in a wilderness area should be stiffer, now is the time to voice that opinion with the Forest Service. The Bob Marshall and all of Montana’s wilderness areas are worth speaking up for.