Foresters keep choppers out of Alaskan wilderness

Isolated areas of Alaskan wilderness are going to remain free from human interference after the state's Forest Service decided to scrap helicopter-based fact finding missions on the grounds that they were causing an unacceptable environmental impact.

Due to the hard-to-access nature of the sites reaching them with ground transport – or even by foot – is out of the question.

The USA carries out a Forest Inventory Analysis which tracks flora, fauna and other habitat characteristics in wooded areas around the country.

But the Forestry Service has decided that the value of the data gathered cannot justify the potential of helicopters to spoil the unique nature of the wilderness.

Ken Post, a spokesman for the service, told edie: “The concerns are not related to aircraft emissions, damage to vegetation or similar environmental issues.

“It boiled down to the concern that helicopters create noise and visual impacts that can reach unacceptable levels.

“The concerns were related to two of the four parts of wilderness character – the undeveloped quality refers to the absence of mechanical transport, and outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.”

He explained that foot patrols had been ruled out as excessively risky for employees.

“The primary concern to employees hiking was from slips, trips and falls while carrying heavy loads. There are virtually no trails, and no roads, packstock such as horses and mules are not used here because of steepness, mud, thick brush, and lack of forage.

“The crews would have to hike to plots that are steep and wet carrying 65 pound packs, minimum. These plots could be anywhere flat, open ground to a mountain slope that is heavily vegetated.”

He said the loss of the data had to be weighed against the needs to preserve the wilderness.

“FIA data is used in many ways,” he said.

“For example, it is used for habitat mapping for sensitive and management indicator species, estimating old growth, determining ecological diversity, identifying role of dead wood and snags in the ecosystem, and assessing recovery from catastrophic windstorm and fire events.

“The FIA program is charged with doing the inventory on all federal lands and they would like to do it on the federal wilderness lands.

“The Wilderness Act has conditions that have to be considered and this analysis tried to weigh those conditions against the benefits of the inventory.”

Sam Bond

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