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Bozeman man fined $500 for landing helicopter in the Bob

by Kianna Gardner
Daily Inter Lake | June 16, 2020 11:07 AM

A Bozeman man who landed a helicopter in the Bob Marshall Wilderness in May has paid the maximum $500 fine for doing so, according to a Tuesday press release from the Montana Department of Justice.

Samuel L. Schwerin, 48, received the notice for the violation — a federal misdemeanor — after landing a helicopter on the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex on May 16.

The Hungry Horse News reported last month that two horsemen came upon the helicopter during a ride near Black Bear. They had seen the helicopter buzzing over the South Fork earlier that day, but at about 3:30 p.m., they saw the craft parked on a gravel sand bar on the South Fork of the Flathead River and a couple fishing.

According to public Federal Aviation Administration tail number records, the craft is a Bell Rotocraft helicopter owned by WOS Holding IV of Belgrade, whose principal owner is Sara Schwerin. Sara accompanied Samuel the day the helicopter landed on the South Fork.

The U.S. Forest Service investigated the incident after receiving a report on May 19 by one of the individuals who had been traveling on horseback, the press release said. The Forest Service, in consultation with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, issued Schwerin the violation notice, which was processed on June 12 through the U.S. Courts’ Central Violations Bureau.

The bureau handles violation notices issued and processes payments for infractions committed on federal property. And according to the press release, the Code of Federal Regulations identifies penalties for this violation under 36 CFR section 261.1b. The maximum penalty is a $500 fine, six months in prison or both.

In a prepared statement, U.S. Attorney Kurt Alme said “wilderness areas were created to be free of motorized activity, including helicopters. Montanans cherish places like the Bob Marshall not only for their spectacular mountains, rivers, meadows and wildlife but also for the quiet and solitude they provide. People who violate the wilderness regulations will be investigated and prosecuted.”

Federal law prohibits motorized or mechanical use in the boundary with the exception of the airstrip at Schafer Meadows in the Great Bear Wilderness. However, the Hungry Horse News reported the area where the helicopter had landed was well over 20 miles from the Schafer area.

“We take concerns about the proper use of our national forests and wilderness areas very seriously,” Flathead National Forest Supervisor Kurt Steele said in a prepared statement. “Many members of the public took the time to share their thoughts on the incident and their appreciation for the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. It is a world-renowned jewel that plays an important role in our landscape level ecosystem and our tourism economy. We appreciate the public reporting these types of incidents so our Forest Service law enforcement professionals and partners at the Department of Justice can investigate and appropriately prosecute them.”

The Schwerins issued an apology shortly after the investigation launched, saying they had briefly stopped in a location they had believed to be outside the wilderness boundary. “We made a mistake understanding our surroundings and we sincerely apologize,” they said in the statement released by a public relations firm.

But apology aside, the $500 fine may seem like a slap on the wrist to many, including a group of wilderness advocates who wrote a letter to U.S. Forest Service Region 1 officials requesting the couple receive the stiffest penalties possible, including confiscating the helicopter and revoking the pilot’s license. In the letter, Wilderness Watch Executive Director George Nickas said “the egregiousness of the action, the disdain it shows for the sanctity of wilderness, and the sense of privilege and entitlement displayed by the helicoptering couple argues for the strongest possible punishment.”

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4407 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com