(CN) – Las Vegas police can perform search-and-rescue missions in wilderness areas in contravention of aircraft restrictions, a federal judge ruled.
The responsibilities of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department include search and rescue in the La Madre Mountain and Rainbow Mountain Wilderness Areas. These operations “often require both helicopter and ground crews using high angle rescue technologies,” according to the ruling.
Though the federal Wilderness Act prohibits “motorized vehicle or aircraft use in wilderness areas,” a November 2007 Bureau of Land Management report found that police helicopter training fell within “an exception to the restriction … for measures required in emergencies involving the health and safety of persons within the area.”
The bureau then authorized the police to conduct exercises “for a total of 48 hours in a calendar year, with no limitations on the number of days during which the training could occur.”
Wilderness Watch appealed the BLM’s ruling, and, when that failed, filed suit in the District of Nevada under the Wilderness Act and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), arguing that environmental damage would be inevitable.
U.S. District Judge Kent Dawson granted the federal agencies summary judgment against the claims.
Under the Administrative Procedure Act, a federal court can only “set aside agency actions that are arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise no in accordance with law” – not simply “because [the court] disagrees with the decision or the agency’s conclusions about environmental impacts,” the 16-page ruling states.
The Wilderness Act, which includes “conflicting policy directives,” faces the tension between “preserving and protecting wilderness lands ‘in their natural condition'” and “preserv[ing] wilderness lands for a variety of uses by humans: recreational, scenic, scientific, educational, conservation, and historical,” Dawson added.
Nonetheless, following precedent from a previous case involving Wilderness Watch, the court found that “Congress did not mandate that [government agencies] preserve the wilderness in a museum diorama, one that we might observe only from a safe distance.”
“The BLM’s decision-making process demonstrates thoroughness in the drafting and comment process conducted for each document as evidenced throughout the record,” Dawson wrote on June 29. “And the proposition itself – that helicopter search and rescue training is so closely linked with performance of helicopter rescue services that the provision of one involves the provision of the other – is self-evidently reasonable.”
The court brushed aside Wilderness Watch’s concerns over potential environmental damage caused by trainings, saying that “the cases cited by Plaintiff involve impacts to wildlife on a far different scale than the potential impacts […] from a noisy helicopter overhead.”
“Given the plan approved by the BLM, most wildlife in the wilderness areas are unlikely to ever experience these possible negative impacts,” Dawson wrote.
Wilderness Watch proposed that the bureau could close off areas of wilderness, require climbing equipment and perform rescues without helicopters to reduce activity, but Dawson found that these alternatives would not “completely eliminate emergency situations in wilderness areas,” regardless of how small the probability of a helicopter rescue may be.
The court framed Wilderness Watch’s arguments as too rigid for the flexible process anticipated by the Clark County Conservation of Public Land and Natural Resources Act of 2002.
“Plaintiff does not offer any reasons why some smaller amount of wilderness area training (other than zero hours) would meet the minimum requirements of the emergency purposes of the Act, and even if Plaintiff had made a reasoned argument in favor of some smaller amount, the BLM’s decisions must be given the appropriate deference,” Dawson wrote.
Since “mountain flying is one of the more dangerous activities undertaken by general aviation aircraft,” the court insisted that pilots and rescue personnel deserve adequate training before venturing into such areas.
“It has been said that only fools rush in (or, in this case, expect others to rush in) where angels fear to tread,” Dawson added.