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WA Wild Works to Protect North Cascades from Unregulated Private Helicopter Flights

Posted on Dec 1, 2023 in Conservation News, WA Wild Blog
In early September, a helicopter crashed into Copper Lake—a pristine and remote slice of wilderness in the North Cascades. In response, Washington Wild coordinated a letter signed by 37 conservation, recreation, and wildlife organizations, local businesses, and stakeholders raising concerns and offering potential solutions. We also put out an action alert through which our supporters generated an additional 112 letters urging the US Forest Service and WA Department of Natural Resources to work together to close loopholes in regulations regarding helicopter flights and landings within the Mt Baker Snoqualmie National Forest and Morning Star Natural Conservation Area. 

The Crash

On September 8th a helicopter from Arlington-based WorldWind Helicopters, Inc. carrying a group of tourists crashed into Copper Lake, a pristine and remote slice of wilderness in the North Cascades that would require miles of bushwhacking for hikers to reach by foot. The crash occurred during the pilot’s second flight to the lake; after successfully dropping off a group of four people on the south shore, the helicopter crashed with a second group of four onboard.

Nobody was injured in the crash, and all nine people left stranded were evacuated the next day. The helicopter, however, sank into the lake with an estimated 60 gallons of fuel onboard and was eventually pulled from Copper Lake on November 8th by a dive and salvage company. According to Everett Public Works, the helicopter was intact when it was pulled from the watershed and checked for possible fuel or fluid leaks. 

Concerns About Impacts on this Important Conservation Area 

Located in the headwaters of the Sultan watershed, Copper Lake drains into Spada Lake via Williamson Creek. Spada Lake is the primary source of clean drinking water for nearly 660,000 people in the City of Everett and much of Snohomish County. Additionally, Copper Lake is a part of, and surrounded by, thousands of acres of protected conservation areas. A portion of Copper Lake sits in the Morning Star Natural Resources Conservation Area, a WA Department of Natural Resources (DNR) property where landing aircraft is illegal. The northern and western shores of Copper Lake are owned by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), where “commercial” landings are allowed with a permit.

A helicopter at Copper Lake in 2019, via Google Maps

A helicopter at Copper Lake in 2017, via Google Maps

While an unfortunate accident—and one that luckily did not cause more harm than it did—this incident exposed loopholes in fly-in tourism regulations and presented agencies with the opportunity to address them. It appears this flight was not an isolated incident; according to media reports and as evidenced by images in Google Maps, people have flown helicopters to Copper Lake previously and are likely to continue doing so in the future unless changes to current regulations are made. There are significant concerns about the possible environmental and ecological repercussions of this crash and want to ensure future incidents like this do not reoccur. Without action, unpermitted or unmanaged helicopter flights on national forest lands have the potential to negatively impact wilderness character, fish and wildlife habitat, quiet recreational opportunities, and tribal treaty rights and lifeways.

Proposed Solutions

It is crucial to acknowledge and uphold the hard-won protections for these conservation areas, as they also serve as the source of clean and safe drinking water for the residents of Snohomish County. To safeguard the Morning Star Natural Resource Conservation Area, Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest, and Wild Sky and Henry M. Jackson Wilderness Areas, Washington Wild called for the USFS and WA-DNR’s support and cooperation toward the implementation of the following necessary measures:

1. A new Copper Lake Area Closure in the Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest, to be enacted by January 1, 2024 and remain in effect for two years. This closure should expand upon the boundary of the current closure put in place immediately following the crash to include: 1) all USFS in-holdings designated within the Morning Star NRCA, and 2) areas of the Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest protected under the 2001 National Forest Roadless Area Rule which occur adjacent to the Morning Star NRCA. Additionally, this new temporary Copper Lake closure should be limited to helicopter landings, as opposed to all lawful access like hiking, hunting, fishing, etc.

2. A NEPA process carried out by the USFS as soon as practicable to permanently prohibit helicopter landings not just at Copper Lake and other USFS lands in the South Fork Stillaguamish and Sultan Watersheds but throughout the entire Mt. Baker Snoqualmie National Forest.  The NEPA document should address gaps in the permitting requirements for both commercial and private helicopter landings on national forest service land outside designated Wilderness, propose solutions to enforcement challenges, and identify fines for such activities in the future.

3. Hold WorldWind Helicopters, Inc. responsible for all damages to the local ecosystem.