Shick puts it to me in blunter terms. "Yeah, the green groups have bigger fish to fry – just not here in Jackson Hole. These people just need something to do to justify living here."
But local activists such as Bruce Hayse, a doctor and board member of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, believe that there's no environmental victory too small. "I grew up in the rural West. I even built roads for the Forest Service many years ago," Hayse tells me in his rustic home near downtown. "Back then, I used to think there was plenty of wilderness to go around. I was wrong. Wilderness is disappearing a lot faster than heli-skiing. To save wilderness, you have to fight a lot of battles, however small. Each achievement can set a precedent and add up over time."
Shick's troubles date to 1984, 10 years after he began ferrying hotdoggers into the backcountry. Back then, Shick was a guide who was intimate with the Palisades, a 180,000-acre portion of the Bridger-Teton and Caribou-Targhee National forests. Steep enough to make an out-of-towner feel like the John Holmes of ski porn, the Palisades are low-angle enough not to scare him back to his corner office; they're also home to mountain goats, raptors, grizzlies, and the occasional wolverine. That year, Congress declared the Palisades a Wilderness Study Area; the designation meant helicopters could stay, as long as the Palisades' "wilderness character" and "opportunities for solitude" weren't diminished. At the time the Forest Service allowed High Mountain Heli about 65 skier days. (A skier day is one skier on one day.) Each time HMH's permit came up for renewal, the Forest Service let the company fly more clients, not once claiming that heli-skiing degraded the Palisades. "They gave us room to grow the business according to demand," Shick tells me. "They knew we weren't doing any harm." By 1999, business seemed unstoppable, and Shick took out a loan and bought into the company. At the time of purchase, HMH's permit had grown to almost 500 skier days per season – about 100 days in the air, split between two choppers.
"That can't be legal," Tim Preso recalls thinking when local environmental groups informed him of the Forest Service's generosity with High Mountain Heli.
The Greater Yellowstone Coalition demanded that the Forest Service conduct an environmental impact study of the Palisades WSA. Issued in 2006, the report declared that Shick was doing no harm. According to the analysis, HMH's thwap-thwapping choppers and whoop-whooping skiers weren't making wildlife run for cover. In fact, the study said that all was exactly as it had been back in 1984, when the company was still in its infancy. As Shick says, "Skiers need a deep snowpack that's way above tree line. Goats don't eat snow."
Greater Yellowstone and Tim Preso weren't having it. "The Forest Service painted a false picture of the heli-ski permit's impacts," Preso tells me. "They made it look like [the increase in] skier days was far less dramatic than was really the case." So he and Greater Yellowstone sued the Forest Service in district court, and won. The judge noted that High Mountain Heli had an "impeccable operating history." He admitted that "the court has struggled over this case." But, said the judge, "According to Congress, the opportunities for solitude that existed in 1984 must be maintained."
Shick was devastated. Scaling back to 65 skier days, he said, would kill his business overnight. The judge allowed the parties to strike a deal: Rather than die a sudden death, HMH would decrease its skier numbers over the next five years; by 2011, the operation would be back to 1984 levels. Shick saw the proposal as the lesser of two evils. "I had two choices," he tells me. "I could go out of business immediately, or I could stay afloat for another season or two and fight the agreement."
To heli-ski operations in the U.S., Shick's court defeat was ominous. If the Jackson greenies could beat Shick, what was to stop others from hauling them in front of a judge? So in 2006 the group hired Craig Pattee, president of Dutko Worldwide, a D.C. lobbying firm with a tremendous client list, from health care to homeland security. As an influence man for the heli-ski business, Pattee's job is to convince lawmakers that heli-skiing is a legitimate and harmless use of public lands. As a representative for Shick and High Mountain Heli, Pattee is hoping to initiate a "legislative fix" that would "re-open" the Wyoming Wilderness Act.
To hear Pattee tell it, the enviros – in Jackson Hole and elsewhere – are using those cuddly wolverines as pawns. Really, he says, "this is about social preferences and nothing more." People who oppose heli-skiing "think their form of recreation is more righteous. They want to impose their lifestyle on everyone else."
The opposition scoffs at such a notion. As Hayse says, "It's a matter of giving nature the special protection it deserves."
"Study after study has shown no ill effect [of heli-skiing] on the environment," Pattee says. "The heli industry goes out of its way not to come close to wildlife . . . but you can practically give a mountain goat a haircut before it notices a helicopter." Forest Service land is the "Land of Many Uses," he adds. "We just want a chunk of land where heli-skiing is allowed. The small area where heli-skiing is allowed is hardly pristine," he says. "Anyone wanting a moment of solitude isn't going to find it in the Wilderness Study Area."