Is Heli-Hiking Bad for the Wilderness?

A for and against look at heli-hiking
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A for and against look at heli-hiking

Q: Is heli-hiking bad for the wilderness?

For 30 years, Alberta-based Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH) has led heli-hiking tours of the Canadian Rockies, landing clients on alpine ridges that are difficult or impossible to access on foot. Proponents say it allows people who are time-strapped, older, or less fit to enjoy stunning natural places. Skeptics claim it threatens fragile locations and stresses wildlife. Currently, heli-hiking is offered only in western Canada and Alaska, but some environmental groups worry that shrinking ski seasons and the growing market for helicopter-based recreation will encourage Lower 48 heli-ski outfits to petition public agencies to fly their birds in summer.

A: Yes No matter how it's justified, heli-hiking ruins the quiet and isolated spaces it seeks to make accessible. Transporting hundreds of people to places previously visited by a handful of hardy hikers irrevocably alters the alpine terrain, as it has in Alberta. Plus, multiple studies indicate that frequent helicopter noise harms wildlife by inducing panic and causing reproductive stress. Grand Canyon backpackers already know how the constant buzzing degrades the outdoor experience. Just because people can pay thousands of dollars to fly into the backcountry doesn't make it a good idea. After all, preserving peaks that are difficult to reach is what makes hiking into those places so rewarding.

Grady Semmens

Executive Board Member,Sierra Club of Canada, Chinook Chapter

A: NO Preserving alpine ecosystems is as important for CMH customers as it is for backpackers. As a result, we don't land near wilderness zones, places with noise restrictions, or popular hiking routes. We hire professional pilots and mountain guides to ensure our clients act responsibly, and we conduct research to avoid known wildlife habitats. Some people claim hikers need to suffer and sweat to access remote places. But the natural world shouldn't be an exclusionary club. Many of our clients would never be able to traverse an alpine ridge without the convenience of our helicopters. At the end of the day, they enjoy the mountains as much as the people who decide to walk up them.

Dave Butler

Forester, biologist, and CMH Director of Land Resources