U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth opened a congressional hearing this week with a tale that seemed to typify the bureaucratic thinking people love to hate about the federal government.
The U.S. Forest Service has its priorities so messed up, the Idaho Republican lamented, that it will send a helicopter into the wilderness “without question” to rescue a sick wolf. But it won’t let one land to rescue a lost Boy Scout.
“What has happened to compassion in our federal land management agencies?” Chenoweth wondered, adding she “questioned the wisdom” of the agency.
The Wilderness Act, which her subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health was reviewing, “is fraught with horror stories,” she said.
The problem was, these particular stories were far from complete.
The young Boy Scout was rescued from the Pecos Wilderness in New Mexico by helicopter - a landing that was delayed but not denied by the 33-year-old law.
A wolf was choppered out of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho. But only after federal biologists spent a day getting a helicopter, a veterinarian and the permission to land a mile inside the wilderness boundary.
The wolf, which had been poisoned, died the next day.
The Boy Scout, 17-year-old Robert Graham Jr. of suburban Chicago, says he’s no worse for the extra time he spent in the Pecos.
The two incidents occurred some 1,000 miles and three years apart. The main thing they have in common is a restriction in allowing motorized vehicles into a wilderness area.
Cars, planes or helicopters can enter wilderness areas in an emergency, if the supervisor of the nearby national forest gives permission.
On July 31, 1991, ranch hands checking cattle on leased federal land in the Bear Valley north of Boise spotted what they thought was an injured gray wolf about a mile inside the boundary of Idaho’s Frank Church Wilderness.
At the time, state and federal officials were studying whether any gray wolves - which are on the endangered species list - even lived in the area. The ranch hands contacted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife office, where biologist Jay Gore made plans to investigate.
Gore said Friday he contacted the supervisor of the Boise National Forest while securing a helicopter and finding a veterinarian to make the trip in.
Everything came together the following day. They flew in, landed in a meadow, found a she-wolf they thought may have been kicked by a cow or an elk, and flew it out. The wolf died that night, and an autopsy showed it was poisoned. The law enforcement office for the Forest Service never discovered who planted the poison.
Kent Fuellenbach, public information officer for the Frank Church Wilderness, said it is the only case he could find in which a helicopter was sent to rescue a wolf. When the federal government began reintroducing wolves to the area two years ago, some were flown in by airplane, using runways built before the land was set aside as wilderness.
About once a year, a helicopter is sent into the wilderness to rescue a camper, hiker or boater who is injured, he added.
Three years later, Graham was part of a Scout troop spending a week camping in the Pecos Wilderness, northwest of Santa Fe. The first full day out, the troop stopped for lunch as they were hiking from one camping location to another. After lunch, Graham needed to repack his knapsack and told the others to go on, he’d catch up.
He never did. He took a wrong turn, doubled back and by the time he realized he was lost, it was late in the day. He did what all Scouts are taught: Stay put and wait.
“I had my tent, sleeping bag, water and purification tablets,” Graham said. “I figured I’d spend one night alone, look at the map in the morning.”
When the rest of the troop realized Graham wasn’t going to catch up, they went for help. They were deep enough into the wilderness that they didn’t find a ranger until the next day.
The search crews included a New Mexico state police helicopter crew that spotted Graham at his makeshift campsite about 1 p.m. that second day. The chopper circled; the Scout waived.
The helicopter had taken off before the forest supervisor could be located to approve a landing, so the pilot radioed the search headquarters.
The supervisor still hadn’t been found, but when the pilot relayed Graham’s position, rescue workers realized there was a work crew about 45 minutes away, said Carolyn Bye, a service employee who helped coordinate the search.
Bye radioed the crew, which agreed to go to Graham. The helicopter pilot wrote a note about the plan, put it in a binder that he dropped for the Scout, then returned to refuel.
Problem was, the crew couldn’t find the Scout, and Graham never found the binder.
“It got stuck in a tree,” he said.
By the time rescue personnel realized that the work crew was not going to find Graham, darkness was setting in. Expecting someone to arrive any time, the Scout spent a second night alone in the wilderness.
He was carrying part of the troop’s food supply, but didn’t want to break it open and start a campfire in the dry area. He got by on trail mix and about a half-pound of ginger snaps.
The next morning, the search helicopter went up again, and found Graham in the same location. The pilot radioed back, and a larger, second helicopter landed in a meadow to pick him up after the forest supervisor gave his approval.
“That part of the story doesn’t get told,” said Bye. She concedes the incident proved the Forest Service needed to improve its communication system.
Now, any time the forest supervisor is unavailable, an assistant has the authority to permit landings for emergencies, she said.
In the Frank Church Wilderness, which covers parts of four different national forests, such a system has been in place for years.
Chenoweth couldn’t be contacted Friday for her comments on the full story of the two incidents. A spokeswoman said the research was conducted by the subcommittee staff, and didn’t know if the congresswoman knew that a helicopter rescued Graham.
Graham said he doesn’t think there should be any restrictions to using motor vehicles in the wilderness during emergencies. But he doesn’t think the areas should be more open to motor vehicles for other reasons.
“It came out fine,” he said of his time in the wilderness.
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