SILVERTON — Those who have explored the Morning Star Natural Resources Conservation Area describe it as “wild” — a landscape of rocky mountain peaks, forests and alpine meadows.
A recent helicopter crash into one of the region’s most remote and pristine lakes has ignited concerns among activists and officials, who say such fly-in tourism can harm protected wilderness, as well as people downstream.
Around 8:30 p.m. Sept. 8, a Eurocopter AS350 “Ecureuil” or “Squirrel” helicopter crashed into Copper Lake, part of the watershed that feeds into Spada Lake, the main drinking water source for Snohomish County.
The pilot, from Arlington-based WorldWind Helicopters, Inc., had initially dropped off four people near the south end of Copper Lake. The pilot then left and tried to bring four more people to the shoreline, when the helicopter crashed into the water.
Copper Lake sits on the southwest slope of Big Four Mountain, where it’s a stunning jewel in the scenery when viewed from 6,221-foot Vesper Peak. It requires miles of bushwhacking to hike to the lake — unless you can fly in.
Landing aircraft in a natural resources conservation area is illegal. Copper Lake sits right on the border with the National Forest, where “commercial” landings are allowed with a permit. This pilot did not have a permit and claimed it was a “private” flight, which is technically not banned, Forest Service spokesperson Jeff Clark said.
No one was injured in the crash, but the aircraft had “substantial” damage, according to a report from the National Transportation Safety Board. It is still unclear what caused the helicopter to crash, and an official report won’t be made public until the investigation is completed.
WorldWind Helicopters did not respond to requests for comment.
The helicopter, filled with about 60 gallons of fuel, remained submerged in the lake this week. But Everett officials said there was no immediate threat to the county’s drinking water.
The camping group notified authorities of the crash on the morning of Sept. 9. Snohomish County Search and Rescue responded to bring them back to civilization by helicopter.
‘It won’t allow anything out’
About 25 miles east of Everett, the Morning Star area extends over 37,000 acres, protects several rare plant species and provides habitat for threatened and endangered wildlife like Pacific fishers and gray wolves.
It’s about 20 miles west of the state’s most secluded volcano, Glacier Peak, as the crow flies.
The site of the helicopter crash was also 10 miles upstream from the outlet of Williamson Creek, which connects Copper Lake to Spada Lake. The Snohomish County Public Utility District operates the dammed reservoir and co-owns the dam with the city of Everett, contracting with neighboring cities to supply 640,000 people with drinking water. To prevent contamination, swimming, overnight camping and combustion engines are banned at Spada Lake.
City of Everett officials wasn’t informed of the helicopter incident until Sept. 12 — about three days after the crash. A member of Snohomish County Search and Rescue told the city there weren’t any visible fuel spills in the days immediately after the crash. If fuel were to leak out, it would float to the surface and have a rainbow-colored tint.
“There was no sign of that,” said Anna Thelen, a senior environmental specialist for Everett.
Right after they were notified, Snohomish County PUD and the state Department of Ecology put oil booms at the outlet of Williamson Creek. More booms were placed Sept. 14 near the site of the crash to prevent any oil, if it were to spill, from going downstream. Oil is volatile, too, so it would likely evaporate into the air if it traveled past the booms.
City officials were under the impression the helicopter has an enclosed fuel system.
“It’ll only allow things in, it won’t allow anything out,” said Thelen.
City staff have been sampling water from the area every two weeks since the crash to ensure safe water quality, Thelen said. They will continue to do so until the wreckage is recovered.
Forest Service rangers had never heard of anyone fly-in camping, or transporting tourists by helicopter, in the remote Morning Star area or near Copper Lake.
The portion of the Copper Lake area in the Morning Star Natural Resources Conservation Area is managed by the state Department of Natural Resources, while the northern and western shores of the lake are managed by the U.S. Forest Service.
DNR officials were under the impression the helicopter landed on state land.
No policy directly addresses helicopter use in conservation areas, so the department refers to its statewide management plan in these situations, said Paul McFarland, natural areas manager for DNR.
The statewide plan prohibits motorized vehicle use in natural resources conservation areas, McFarland said. So under this guidance, the fly-in camping from September wasn’t allowed.
Low-impact public use, such as hiking, is allowed in these zones because it doesn’t usually harm sensitive plants and animals, McFarland said. The same cannot be said about helicopters.
“It’s a lot more disruptive,” said Clark, the spokesperson for Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. “The whole point of wilderness is to not have any manmade impacts.”
Several local and state agencies were coordinating an effort to get the helicopter out of Copper Lake, aiming to have it removed in the next two or three weeks — before winter blankets the lake in ice and snow at 3,037 feet of elevation. But a spokesperson for the state Department of Ecology said that goal depends on weather and resources to help workers access the site.
For people like Rick McGuire, president of the Alpine Lakes Protection Society, which advocates for the preservation of areas like Morning Star, the recent helicopter incident is “horrible.” He believes the city needs to pass an ordinance protecting its watershed, and drinking water, in the future.
Kathleen Baxter, a spokesperson for Everett, said the city doesn’t have authority to regulate activities in the area because it doesn’t own the land where the helicopter crashed. Still, McGuire wants to see wild country protected.
“The rules need to be changed to prevent this from happening,” McGuire said. “The damage is done.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Anna Thelen’s name. It also misstated who operates the Spada Lake reservoir and handled the oil booms. Snohomish County PUD is responsible for all recreation rules and dam operations at Spada Lake, while Everett co-owns the dam. The PUD and the state Department of Ecology handled the oil booms at Spada.