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Know the West

Fly-in wilderness

  During the height of the summer boating season in central Idaho's Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, the sky buzzes with airplanes bound for one of 31 wilderness airstrips. At the Indian Creek airstrip, as many as 50 planes will land in a day. The Montana-based Wilderness Watch says that volume of traffic doesn't belong in the 2.3 million-acre wilderness, which is part of the largest roadless tract in the Lower 48.

"The Forest Service has an obligation to protect the wilderness and preserve its character," says George Nickas, the group's director. "They're doing nothing to control aircraft use."

The Forest Service says closing airstrips is out of the question. Many are on private land, and the legislation creating the wilderness area in 1980 stipulates that federal airstrips remain open.

But the preferred alternative listed in the new 10-year wilderness management plan proposes user fees and permits for pilots who take whitewater boaters, backpackers and hunters into the mountains.

The proposed rules aren't welcomed by pilots, who fear a restriction in flights.

"We're the same as a shuttle service that drives people to the trailhead," says Mike Doris, a McCall Air Taxi pilot.

Nickas says some pilots abuse the wilderness by making "touch and go" landings during training flights or just for fun. "Just as mountain climbers like to bag peaks, we have pilots out there getting their kicks by landing in difficult airstrips."

*Stephen Stuebner