BLM Plans to Allow Wilderness Airstrips

Times Staff Writer

When Lewis and Clark navigated flimsy boats beneath the towering sandstone cliffs of what is now Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, their journal entries described eroded bluffs, abundant wildlife and the Great Falls, which Meriwether Lewis reckoned were “truly magnificent and sublimely grand.”

Although the Missouri Breaks looks much as it did when the Corps of Discovery came through in 1805, this primitive landscape now contains something the explorers could not have foreseen 200 years ago -- airstrips gouged out of sagebrush plateaus.

After decades of ignoring unauthorized takeoffs and landings on the monument’s 10 airstrips, the federal Bureau of Land Management is finalizing plans to close four of the airstrips and allow recreational pilots to land small planes on at least six other remote sites in the Breaks’ uplands.

The proposal has created a tempest at one of the BLM’s most isolated and least-visited outposts. On one side, the Montana Pilots’ Assn. hails the plan as a victory for recreational pilots and others who advocate increased access to public lands. Arrayed on the other side is a loose coalition of conservationists, hunters and anglers who say the planes will harass wildlife and could destroy the experience of solitude offered by the rugged landscape.


Some of the landing areas are cut into land managed as wilderness; others are in or near sites the BLM labels as Areas of Critical Environmental Concern. All of the landing strips are located in areas used by local ranchers for livestock grazing.

If, as expected, the BLM adopts its proposed 20-year plan for operating the Missouri Breaks, it will be the first time the agency has officially sanctioned recreational use of airstrips in wilderness areas.

Critics of the plan, including the Montana Wildlife Federation, which represents hunters and anglers, would like to see use of the airstrips banned. They say the action will almost certainly increase traffic to the airstrips and pose a threat to wildlife, including deer, elk, antelope and bighorn sheep. Although big-game animals are all legally hunted in the monument, the Montana group says allowing planes to drop well-to-do hunters deep into difficult terrain would put ground-based hunters at a disadvantage.

They also argue that well-maintained airstrips could become staging areas for poachers and note the significant commercial value of bighorn sheep. Montana’s annual auction for the single out-of-state bighorn hunting permit it issues each year has fetched as much as $310,000.

Critics say the campaign by pilots to access land deep within the Breaks is motivated not so much by a clamor to use the landing strips there, but rather to establish a precedent.

“I don’t think these pilots want to fly in and out of the Breaks,” said Will Patric of the Wilderness Society in Bozeman, Mont. “This is a pressure campaign by the Montana Pilots’ Assn. to open up more federal public lands to recreational flying activities.”

Talking points on the pilots association’s website indicate as much: “Getting six airstrips written in the management plan of a new National Monument will be a precedent-setting event.”

Pilots readily acknowledge that they are interested in greater access to BLM and Forest Service lands in the region, and they argue that the airstrips, among other things, serve recreationists who are not physically able to hike or even ride in a vehicle for miles to get to backcountry.

Members of the Montana Pilots’ Assn. said their activism was intended to forestall more closures and to maintain access to public lands.

“It seems that motorized recreation is the fall guy anymore,” said J.C. Kantorowicz, a pilot from Great Falls. “They want to close it all up. What are all of us who enjoy motorized recreation supposed to do? There’s no reason to close them because someone in Los Angeles and New York City has an idea that this country out here ought to be completely empty.”

Flying small planes into backcountry is common in the West. Increasingly, ranchers and other residents in rural areas use planes to run errands to distant towns, replacing long rides in pickup trucks along unreliable roads. In fact, a number of ranchers around the Breaks have their own small planes and rudimentary airstrips on their ranches.

Still, many ranchers here oppose the proposed BLM plan.

Bill and Ronnie Robinson own the Anchor Ranch and run 500 head of cattle in the monument. Bill Robinson keeps a plane and hangar on his private land, but neither he nor his wife is happy about the idea of sanctioned landing strips on monument land.

“I don’t want to see the airstrip in the Breaks,” Ronnie Robinson said, sitting at her kitchen table on a hot day recently. “I think it should be protected. I believe the BLM has dropped the ball.”

For years, the BLM was unaware that airstrips existed on government land in the monument, even though some of the 10 airstrips are believed to have been established by the BLM 50 or more years ago for firefighting activities.

“Nobody knew they were there, so the first thing we did was to get somebody out there to look at them,” said monument manager Gary Slagel. “I wouldn’t say we were appalled by them, but we were surprised, and we knew we had to address them in the draft plan.”

Slagel understands that allowing six airstrips is controversial but says that the BLM cannot ban an activity unless there is a scientifically proven effect on resources. An analysis concluded that the planes would not bother wildlife, he said.

Dave Mari, the former manager of the BLM’s Lewistown Field Office and Slagel’s former supervisor, said the agency was under pressure from Montana lawmakers to retain the airstrips in the new management plan.

“If you own an airplane, you are not poor, and you have the ability to make campaign contributions and influence people who have a say,” said Mari, who began the planning process before retiring in 2004.

Supporters of the management plan say it adequately protects wildlife. Moreover, the proposal calls for seasonal closures of four of the six authorized airstrips to allow wildlife undisturbed winter range and to protect the bighorn sheep during lambing.

Kantorowicz says that responsible pilots haven’t caused problems. “I personally fly over game animals, and they don’t run,” the Great Falls pilot said. “I can fly over at 50 feet, and they’ll look up at me -- they don’t even move -- and then go back to grazing.”

Betsy Buffington of the Wilderness Society said the BLM ignored “reams and reams” of scientific data proving that small planes buzzing herds of wildlife was stressful to animals. “In areas where there is no cover, like the Breaks, wildlife run and have no place to hide,” she said.

The 375,000-acre Missouri Breaks monument was designated by President Clinton as one of his last official acts, and his Jan. 17, 2001, proclamation noted that the vestige of wild grasslands on the edge of the Great Plains should be preserved for its isolation.

Dyrck Van Hyning, a 63-year-old former Marine officer who served in Vietnam, grew up on a ranch near Lewistown. Missouri Breaks has always been his refuge, he said, a place to retreat where there is no sign of the hand of man at work.

Surveying a graded airstrip in a remote area of the Breaks known as the Bullwhacker, Van Hyning said he understood why pilots want to bypass the predawn trek he undertook to get to this still place.

“People with money, they don’t want to drive here. They don’t want to hike here. They just want to be here,” he said. “But their being here changes it. That’s its beauty -- it’s unchanged.”