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A lawsuit is challenging the vast number of airstrips in Idaho's protected wilderness

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Think of a bush pilot landing in remote, rugged wilderness. You might automatically think we're talking about Alaska, but it should also be known that Idaho boasts some of the most backcountry landing strips in the U.S. And as NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, Idaho is also the setting for a dispute over restricting access to some of those remote places.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Idaho is home to the most federally protected wilderness of any state outside Alaska, 7,300 square miles of roadless terrain.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DON REIMAN: Boise tower from terrain 858 bravo's ready for takeoff.

SIEGLER: And if you're going to fly into the steep, narrow canyons of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, let alone land in one, you'll want to have a backcountry pilot like Don Reiman at the controls.

REIMAN: Just to warn you, we will be flying close to ridges and the side of the hills.

SIEGLER: Close to ridges and hillsides, he warns over headsets that mask the roar of his 1979 Cessna Turbo 210. Now, Reiman has 50 years of experience. He was flying into these high-altitude, jaw-dropping Idaho mountains well before much of the land below us became federally protected wilderness in 1980.

REIMAN: We're going to go out farther past this point.

SIEGLER: This point is more a cliff, really. And Reiman needs a better view of the small green landing strip beneath it, so he'll do a flyover and then decide whether it's safe.

REIMAN: Where the sun is, I can't see the trees and the terrain well enough.

SIEGLER: The glare of the early morning sun is blinding. There could be an elk down there on the strip, he says. There's no air traffic control in the wilderness, obviously. The little Cessna banks then drops. The tops of pine trees race by at 100 miles an hour outside the small windows, then thud, the tires hit dirt and grass. Another safe conservative landing at Sulphur Creek Ranch.

Good, and then down.

REIMAN: Yep. And you might go ahead...

SIEGLER: He figures it's at least his 50th touchdown here.

REIMAN: So you've got to be comfortable controlling the airplane at slow flight within confined boundaries of the walls of the canyon without stalling it 'cause if you stall, you fall out of the sky.

SIEGLER: Point taken.

Reiman is stopping here to say hello and deliver some supplies to the ranch's longtime caretakers Kiere Schroeder and her husband, ValDean.

KIERE SCHROEDER: Oh, that's a lot. Thank you.

REIMAN: And then...

SCHROEDER: Oh, my gosh.

REIMAN: ...This is for you.

SIEGLER: They're trying to get the place reopened after a recent wildfire and then mudslide. This morning's chat is all about a certain neighbor who really likes to dine on the pipes that flow into the historic log lodge.

SCHROEDER: We'll have no water in the morning. We'll think what's going on? And Val will go out, and he'll have a piece. He'll go, well, it looks like the bear had fun last night, right?

SIEGLER: The Schroeders live way back here for more than half the year.

Do you go out at all?

SCHROEDER: What did we use to say? For funerals and lawsuits (laughter).

SIEGLER: Sulphur Creek, originally a homestead, is kind of a relic of a bygone era when ranchers, miners and adventurers relied on prop planes to access these remote Idaho mountains that later were protected as federal wilderness. The Wilderness Act bans all motorized travel, but we can still land a plane here because this was one of many sites grandfathered in in a compromise when the Frank Church was designated in 1980.

SCHROEDER: Yes, we're called an inholding lovingly by the Forest Service.

SIEGLER: You could get here by horseback or a hike in a really long way, but there's a whole culture and economy built up in an American wilderness thanks to the relative ease of backcountry air travel.

SCHROEDER: There's hardly anyone that comes in here that doesn't say, oh, this is so peaceful. I love being here, that says, oh, I missed this. And so I keep thinking our life is so full and fast that we've forgotten what it is to be quiet.

SIEGLER: Now, there are more than two dozen sanctioned backcountry landing strips in or surrounded by the Frank Church wilderness, most managed by the U.S. Forest Service or the state.

REIMAN: Seat belt's on?

SIEGLER: Yes, sir. Roger.

When he's not doing supply runs or volunteer missions, pilot Don Reiman uses them to access remote trailheads for backpacking trips. He loves it.

REIMAN: A lot of people don't quite know what to expect. And then it's pretty amazing when you get back here, just clearing trees next to cliffs and coming down the canyon and then landing. And it's a very unique experience, and it's a very valuable treasure of Idaho.

SIEGLER: But lately, longtime backcountry pilots have noticed an explosion in traffic out here that could jeopardize this treasure. At this Forest Service ranger station and airstrip along the famous Middle Fork of the Salmon River, planes drop off gear and raft guides and clients who are about to launch a seven-day float. There are also a few hobby pilots, as they're sometimes called, parked on this strip.

REIMAN: Two here, one landed just ahead of us. And when we were on final, two more were in the air behind us, following us in.

SIEGLER: It's busy in one of the emptiest spots on the map in the lower 48. In nearby Missoula, Mont., Andrew Hursh is an attorney with Wilderness Watch.

ANDREW HURSH: The kind of traffic that goes through the Frank Church is insane compared to any other wilderness area, especially in the lower 48 and the density of these landing locations and the amount of people flying to them.

SIEGLER: Hursh says the 1964 Wilderness Act was passed to protect wildlife and preserve America's rustic character, not so the Idaho mountains could be a playground for the wealthy. There are already 26 official landing strips out here. This summer, Hursh's group filed a lawsuit over the legality of four additional ones that they say are being maintained under pressure by Idaho tourism boosters. Hursh says some pilots are just flying to the most challenging strips, landing three or four times just to say they bagged them.

HURSH: And then they fly back out of the wilderness to whatever lodge they're staying at for the evening. They're not in there having a wilderness experience. They're in there having, like, a motor-sport experience.

SIEGLER: The Big Creek Lodge and its airstrip sits just a few air miles west of the Frank Church wilderness boundary. You can drive here on a narrow dirt road from the nearest little town, more than an hour away. Backcountry pilot Josh Lorenz flew in because he had heard about its popular breakfast. He's on a monthlong trip through the West.

JOSH LORENZ: I went from St. Louis to Anchorage, up the coast, Bellingham to Ketchikan, and then from Anchorage went down through Canada and then down here to Idaho.

SIEGLER: Idaho, he says, is a favorite. It's the most challenging, even harder than Alaska, due to its high-altitude landings and rugged river-carved canyons. But for Lorenz, there's another appeal.

LORENZ: Look at Colorado. Look at Wyoming. All these places are getting so crowded, so people are trying to find nature. And I think backcountry aviation is one of the few places where we can really, you know, get away and experience places like this.

SIEGLER: A quest, if not struggle, to find these last wild places, but also a debate about what wilderness really means. Conservationists hope their lawsuit here sparks bigger questions about whether all these flights are a threat to the wild land and the wildlife that Idaho is famous for.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Big Creek, Idaho. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.