Illegal antenna in wilderness study area prompts pushback
(Missoula Current) As he rode up the trail, Taylor Orr was looking forward to some alone-time in the peaks and meadows of the West Pioneer Wilderness Study Area east of Wisdom. He was hoping to recreate the trip he’d first made two summers before in 2019.
After about 8 miles, he was nearing the top of Odell Mountain when he saw a contraption looming over the trail that hadn’t been there before. The large brown metal box and steel frame holding a 15-foot-tall antenna clashed with the small whitebark pine trees and alpine vegetation covering the summit.
“This is what you’re greeted with. It’s maybe 10 feet off the trail,” Orr told the Missoula chapter of the Backcountry Horsemen on Wednesday night.
Orr, a former Forest Service employee of 15 years, was stunned to find a new Forest Service repeater antenna installed on Odell Mountain, because he knew that’s prohibited within a wilderness study area. No mechanical tools or devices are allowed in wilderness.
“What I’m seeing now with the forests of this region, I don’t even know what to say. The land ethic here is just unbelievable, how they treat the land they’re supposed to protect. They don’t follow their forest plan, they don’t follow the Wilderness Study Act,” Orr said.
The West Pioneer Wilderness Study Area is one of seven WSA’s in Montana protected by the Montana Wilderness Study Act of 1977 until Congress either designates them as wilderness or releases them.
The Act requires them to be managed as wilderness, maintaining what was there in 1977, but some national forests have allowed those protections to slide over the past 45 years.
Orr said the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest has allowed several wilderness infractions in the West Pioneer WSA, including allowing new motorized use and unregulated livestock grazing. But installation of the repeater takes the cake.
“My understanding is they landed a helicopter there in 2020 to put in this repeater. And it’s hard to know the truth, but they were supposed to put it off to the west, hidden from view,” Orr said. “They claim that when they got up there, there was so much snow on the ground that they had to put it right there. It’s a pretty lame excuse.”
The Missoula Current asked Beaverhead-Deerlodge NF Public Affairs Officer Catherine McRae for comment. In an email, she said the Forest leadership declined to comment.
The Forest Service uses repeater antennas to relay agency radio communications. In 2015, a repeater was installed on Deer Peak at the edge of the West Pioneer WSA 7 miles southwest of Odell Mountain.
That installation was approved as “temporary” after going through a public process, even though tribal members complained that Deer Peak was culturally significant.
After discovering the antenna on Odell Mountain, Orr joined with Friends of the Bitterroot and WildEarth Guardians to try to find out what happened and ask that it be removed.
A Freedom of Information Act request showed that former Beaverhead-Deerlodge NF supervisor Cheri Ford approved moving the antenna from Deer Peak to Odell Mountain in 2020 without any public process and covered it using a “categorical exclusion,” not for the installation but only approving maintenance of repeater stations across the forest.
“They used a categorical exclusion for repair and maintenance of an administrative site, including lawn mowing and painting buildings. It was unbelievably weak. There was no building there,” Orr said.
Adam Rissien of WildEarth Guardians said the Forest Service, at the very least, should have notified the public before installing the antenna.
“There are probably other locations the repeater could be placed. And frankly, nowadays, with Starlink, do they even need a repeater station?” Rissien said. “We have a concern that the Forest Service is not using the categorical exclusion authorities properly. This is just another example of that.”
This spring, Orr and the Friends of the Bitterroot hired the Ferguson Law Office to look into the situation. In May, the attorneys sent a seven-page demand letter to incoming Beaverhead-Deerlodge Supervisor Lisa Timchack detailing all the legal issues surrounding the Odell repeater and asking for its removal.
“They sat on the letter for four months,” Orr said. “We met with the forest supervisor this summer and had what we thought was a nice visit. She indicated she was the new sheriff in town and recognized there were a lot of problems on the B-bar-D and she was going to deal with it. She had turned the letter over to the Office of General Council for review. I have no idea what they told her. But when we heard back from her, she said that the repeater was going to stay where it is.”
Orr said the Ferguson Law Office attorneys said the case against the Forest Service was strong. So the next step is sending a formal complaint to the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. They’re also requesting to see the public-engagement documents that the Forest Service claimed to have.
Incoming Montana Backcountry Horsemen board member Gary Salsbury said the Missoula and Bitterroot chapters should back the complaint as part of the organization’s mission. The chapter then voted unanimously to support the effort.
“When it comes to financial support, I think we ought to consider that as well, at that point in time. Because that is what we are,” Salsbury said. “This area is isolated, but it’s going to affect every wilderness study area in the state of Montana.”
Orr agreed, saying wilderness study areas have insufficient protection. Both Sen. Steve Daines and former Rep. Greg Gianforte sponsored bills to eliminate five wilderness study areas, including the West Pioneer, in 2018.
Daines proposed a similar bill this summer targeting three WSA’s. The Montana Legislature wants collaborative groups to deal with WSA’s but that usually leads to stakeholders just carving areas up.
“Is this preplanned to allow this lax management to where they can say, ‘Look at all these impacts out there. Maybe it shouldn’t become a wilderness,’” Orr said. “I don't know. But they still are obligated to comply with the Wilderness Study Act.”
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at email@example.com.