Daines to introduce bill raising fine for landing aircraft in wilderness areas

Montana’s Republican Sen. Steve Daines announced Friday a plan to introduce a bill increasing the penalties for landing aircraft in designated wilderness areas.

Landing a helicopter in a wilderness area is considered a federal misdemeanor and carries a maximum penalty of a $500 fine, six months in prison or both. Daines’ bill will propose raising that fine to $20,000.

“Montanans value wilderness for the solitude it provides and the adventure that is involved to travel to so many beautiful locations. My bill will make folks with a deep pocket think twice before entering our pristine wilderness areas unlawfully,” Daines said in the release.

In May, a Bozeman couple landed their helicopter on a sand bar in the Flathead River inside the Bob Marshall Wilderness to fish. After a Forest Service investigation, Samuel Schwerin, the pilot, was sentenced to pay the current maximum fine of $500 and issued an apology for what he said was an “unintentional mistake.”

“I would never knowingly disrespect the wilderness, but intent doesn’t matter here and I own that mistake,” he told the Chronicle.

In 2018, Daines sent a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue asking to reopen up to eight old airfields inside the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Perdue shot that down in July of that year because those airstrips weren’t in public use when the area was designated as wilderness.

Daines spokesperson Katie Schoettler said the bill will most likely be introduced to the Senate when it reconvenes next week.

Roy Loewenstein, a spokesperson for Democratic Senator Jon Tester, said that Tester will also continue to work to protect Montana’s public lands from misuse.

“Regardless of the machine, motorized use in wilderness areas is illegal, period,” Loewenstein said in an email. “Sen. Tester has never wavered in his fight to prevent motorized use in our wilderness areas, and he will always work aggressively to hold accountable anyone who endangers our public lands.”