The wilderness dam below Canyon Lake west of Hamilton is in sad shape. Earlier this summer, officials with the Canyon Creek Irrigation District (CCID) discovered a sinkhole they say could threaten the stability of the structure in the near future—and, consequently, the safety of downstream property including one private residence and a section of Montana Highway 531.
That argument was enough to convince the Bitterroot National Forest to declare a state of emergency at the Canyon Lake Dam earlier this month. The declaration—backed by U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell—truncated the agency's environmental review on the impacts of helicopter access and motorized repairs, allowing the CCID to schedule initial rehabilitation work for this fall. Specialists say it's a situation that simply can't wait.
"For all practical purposes, the dam has failed," says Joel Krause, director of engineering for the Forest Service's Northern Region. "There is no way we can let the pool behind the dam fill, which would happen next spring."
However, the emergency decision notice penned by Bitterroot National Forest Supervisor Julie King Sept. 3 also cut short a 30-day public comment period on the Forest Service's environmental assessment, specifically the appropriateness of CCID's use of motorized equipment in a wilderness area. According to local environmentalists, this is just the latest example of the Forest Service overriding public process when it comes to wilderness dam projects.
"It's part of the same old phony story," says George Nickas, executive director of Missoula-based national organization Wilderness Watch. "[The Forest Service] told everybody they could comment, and even appeal the decision, but it doesn't matter because they're going in to do the work now...How are you going to weigh in when they keep subverting the process?"
The Bitterroot National Forest contains 16 wilderness dams in total. Most, like Canyon Lake, are more than 100 years old and constructed with primitive materials. To meet increased dam safety standards, they require constant maintenance and repair by the separate irrigation districts that own them. Each of these projects must in turn gain approval from the Forest Service.
"Sometimes things have no urgency associated with them, and other times they do," says CCID Commissioner Brian Bachman. "The Forest Service recognizes that, and they work in the best interests of the public."
Bachman says there's no question helicopters and motorized equipment provide a more efficient and expedient way to complete those projects. He says the concrete and tools needed to repair the Canyon Lake sinkhole and insert a membrane along the dam to prevent future erosion would be much harder to transport if the CCID were to use pack stock, as required under the Wilderness Act of 1964. Such an undertaking would significantly degrade the trail to the dam as well.
Nickas doesn't refute the urgency of repairs at Canyon Lake, nor does he deny that helicopter flights leave less of a mark on the land than hoards of mules carrying heavy gear. But he maintains motorized use of any kind in the Bitterroot National Forest is a clear violation of federal law. And he says he's seeing emergency situations declared almost annually now.
"What typically happens is not an iota different than what we're seeing at Canyon Creek this summer," Nickas says. "As soon as someone steps in to challenge it, the Forest Service declares an emergency. 'Oh, life and limb is threatened downstream. We have to roll over and let this happen.' That's how they deal with these wilderness dams; they did it with Tin Cup."
Tin Cup Dam, located southwest of Darby, has been the focus of two separate emergency declarations by the Forest Service in the past 13 years. Both times Nickas and Wilderness Watch have railed against the use of helicopters and heavy equipment, but to no avail. In their latest battle over the issue, Wilderness Watch and the Idaho-based Friends of the Clearwater appealed a proposal from the Tin Cup Water and Sewer District this summer. The proposal calls for a major reconstruction project to double the reservoir's capacity.
"Tin Cup isn't the first one, and it won't be the last one. If the Forest Service and water users have their way, they'll just be allowing more and more and more motorized equipment up there," Nickas says.
District Manager Gary Mortemore says the need for maintenance is less urgent at Tin Cup than Canyon Lake now, but he has responsibilities to the irrigators in the Tin Cup drainage. The district's ability to store enough water for the needs of local landowners has declined, Mortemore says, and safety is always an added concern.
"There's always the safety issue," Mortemore says. "In fact, that's what I've stressed. We want to make sure that dam holds. If that dam ever broke—not that it's in danger of it now—that would wipe the canyon out and anyone living in it."
For now, the Tin Cup district is in a stalemate with Wilderness Watch and Friends of the Clearwater. But work will begin on schedule for Canyon Lake, despite the wilderness regulations Nickas feels the Forest Service should be enforcing. For King, it's a "difficult decision" every time an irrigation district puts in this sort of request.
"This is ongoing, it's never ending," she says. "In my mind I'm thinking, 'We'll get this done and it'll be done.' But it does seem like there's a constant need for access and it does get to be an accumulative effect."