Big Creek Airstrips

Big Creek Airstrips

Current Status:

Date Filed:
Jun 20, 2023

Case Title:
Wilderness Watch, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, Friends of the Clearwater, and Friends of the Bitterroot v. Linda Jackson, Mary Farnsworth, and United States Forest Service

Staff attorney(s):
Laurie Rule


Wilderness Watch

Great Old Broads for Wilderness

Friends of the Clearwater

Friends of the Bitterroot


To Protect:

Wilderness Values




Case Information:

June 20, 2023 — Advocates for the West filed a lawsuit challenging the Forest Service’s unlawful decisions to improve and expand four locations in Idaho’s Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness for aircraft landings and to permit hobby pilots to use these sites for motorized recreation.

The Central Idaho Wilderness Act, which designated the River of No Return Wilderness in 1980, grandfathered a select few airstrips that were already in public use for wilderness access to remote areas. Yet, four locations now popularized by hobby airplane pilots were not among the lawful, grandfathered locations. These four unlawful landing sites occur in the Big Creek drainage, a popular area for hikers, backpackers, and river rafters. The Forest Service’s own documents show the agency recognized back in 1980 that these former dirt airstrips, once used to reach private property, were abandoned, unmaintained, and not subject to public access. Thus, in 1982, the agency and the state of Idaho agreed that these four sites in the River of No Return Wilderness should revert back to their natural state. Three lawful public-access airstrips on National Forest land and one on state land already exist within the Big Creek watershed, over an area only about 30 miles from east to west.

The Forest Service has long bowed to pressure from aviators pushing the agency to open the “Big Creek Four” airstrips to unlimited use by recreational pilots. Years ago, rather than state clearly its determination that these sites were closed to all landings, the agency labeled them “emergency use only,” a phrase that pilots have long chosen to ignore, instead treating the sites as open for public use.

The area’s wilderness quality continues to suffer from the ongoing and increasing noise and intrusion, with the illicit landing areas being used for multi-airplane rendezvouses, practice “touch and go” landings, airstrip “bagging” in which recreational pilots see how many landings at different locations they can rack up, and even overnight airplane camping. The Forest Service has documented that a person in the Big Creek area—and the wildlife there—can often encounter up to 30 low-flying airplanes in a single day.

Case Filings