Unlawful helicopter touchdown within the wilderness space spurs legislation for harsher penalties

After a controversial helicopter landing in the Montana wilderness, lawmakers proposed a bill to increase the maximum penalty by almost 4,000%.

After a helicopter landed in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Senator Steve Daines is in the process of writing a bill to increase the maximum fine for an aerial wilderness landing from $ 500 to $ 20,000.

The move takes place after disgruntled citizens learn of a couple who landed their private helicopter for fishing at Bob Marshall in May. They received a federal crime charge for the offense, which was punished with a maximum fine of $ 500.

Citizens of Montana and public country lawyers announced that the fine was just a slap on the wrist for anyone who could afford to fly a private helicopter at all. Now things look like they could change for future offenders.

Strange sight: helicopter in Bob Marshall Wilderness

It's a sight that wilderness travelers wouldn't expect: a low-flying helicopter lands within the wilderness limits, and two people get out, fully equipped for a fly fishing adventure. But that's exactly what Montanan John Morris saw on horseback in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

Morris approached the couple – Sam and Sara Schwerin – and informed them that they were violating the law on the use of motor vehicles in public spaces. The couple pushed Morris back, saying they were below the flood line – an argument that Morris’s objection to the illegal use of a helicopter on restricted public land.

Morris managed to capture photos and video of the couple as well as the helicopter's identification number. Morris later passed the information on to the U.S. Forest Service.

On June 16, 48-year-old Sam Schwerin was charged with an offense and fined $ 500. He and Sara apologized for the misfortune and said they believed they had landed outside the wilderness border.

Outrage at illegal helicopter landing

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The Wilderness Act of 1964 specifically prohibits any motorized use within the wilderness limits, with the exception of some designated runways that were incorporated into the law at the time of writing.

Although Schwerin stated that he had not noticed that he was within the wilderness limits, landing in a national forest area requires the written permission of local officials. In addition, aircraft must remain 2,000 feet above wilderness areas and wild and scenic rivers during flight.

The public backlash against the landing was quick and violent. But the relatively small maximum penalty of just $ 500 caused even more trouble. Social media broke out in anger at the minimal fine.

Today, more than 13,700 people have signed a petition calling for much tougher penalties, including the loss of Schwerin's pilot and fishing licenses, a fine of $ 1,000,000, and more.

Daines announces bill to increase the sentence

In response to the outcry, Montana Senator Steve Daines announced this week that he was writing a bill that would increase the maximum fine for an aerial landing into the designated wilderness to $ 20,000.

"Montana's wilderness shouldn't be used as a playground for the rich and famous," said Daines.

“Montans appreciate the wilderness for the loneliness and adventure that comes with traveling to so many beautiful places. My bill will make people with a deep pocket think twice before illegally entering our pristine wilderness areas. "

It is an interesting move for Daines, who only campaigned for the reopening of eight 1960s runways in the Bob Marshall Wilderness in 2018. This move, which Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue contested as a potential violation of the current Wilderness Act. A historic airstrip is currently open within the complex, and its current use dates back to before 1964.

On the other hand, Daines recently sponsored the acclaimed Great American Outdoors Act, a law on public land expenditure passed by the Senate that is currently awaiting a vote in the House of Representatives.

Go forward

A plan for the invoice is still pending. But the incident remains crisp in the hearts and minds of the Montans. Morris recently received its own $ 500 bonus for reporting the violation and conviction, thanks to a privately funded reward program organized by the non-profit backcountry Hunters & Anglers.

The OHV Reward Fund offers the same amount as an incentive for anyone who reports illegal motorized use on public property that leads to a conviction. However, as Morris notes, the reward does not erase the effects that such an injury can have.

"My family has enjoyed bob loneliness for three generations," said Morris from his nearby hometown of Kalispell. “The fact that a helicopter landed illegally on the South Fork completely affected my experience. In my eyes this place will never be the same for me. "

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