Dam wilderness 

The Bitterroot National Forest and 125 Darby irrigators have been sparring over a $1 million bill for the past five years, and it looks as if the two parties may soon be squaring off in federal court.

In 1998, the 125 landowners comprising the Tin Cup Water and Sewer District learned that their 100-year-old dam was leaking. The man-made dam, about 14 miles west of Darby in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, posed a hazard to downstream residents and the town of Darby. The Tin Cup Water and Sewer District members, fearing they lacked the money to do the repair job right, turned to the deepest pockets around—the U.S. Forest Service.

The BNF agreed to repair the aging structure, but to the dismay of wilderness advocates, used helicopters to fly in heavy, motorized equipment. The tab totaled nearly $1 million, which the BNF handed over to the Tin Cup Water and Sewer District for reimbursement. District irrigators refused payment, saying they could have done the work for much less themselves.

They might have been right. In recent weeks, district irrigators found that the dam was again in need of emergency structural repair (last spring the reservoir overtopped the Forest Sevice’s million-dollar fix) and asked the Bitterroot National Forest for permission to haul heavy, motorized equipment to the wilderness dam via the popular Tin Cup hiking trail. Forest officials said no, but did grant permission for the irrigators to haul equipment up with a small helicopter. The work began last weekend and should take a couple of weeks to complete. The estimated tab this time around? About $51,000, says District Assistant General Manager Tex Marsolek. That includes $15,000 to $20,000 for the helicopter.

Wilderness Watch Board President Bill Worf laments the use of motorized equipment in the wilderness, but acknowledges that “it’s a done deal.”

Meanwhile, the disputed $1 million bill for the 1998 repair job has been turned over to the U.S. Attorney for prosecution. A settlement conference is set for October.

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