One of the more important lessons I learned during my college years in Oregon was never engage in two illegal activities at the same time (i.e., rolling joints in a speeding vehicle). A no-brainer corollary to this rule apparently must have escaped Jorge Simental, an ER physician who recently launched a supplemental career as a flyfishing guide: If you are doing something that might be illegal, don’t invite the media to publicize it.
A June 1 article in Kalispell’s Daily Inter Lake featured Simental leading guests by helicopter into the spectacular wildlands of the Lewis and Clark National Forest’s Rocky Mountain Front in north central Montana. The article by freelance writer Dave Reese, who edits Montana Living magazine in Whitefish, describes how this helicopter-assisted outfitting into the Front’s Badger-Two Medicine area was done under the auspices of Simental’s special-use permit administered by the U.S. Forest Service.
“Every person has an outlet for inner peace and balance in life,” the article quotes Simental, who operates out of Summit Station Lodge on the Continental Divide at Marias Pass. “My balance is achieved by angling untouched waters, mixed with the solitude of the surroundings.”
Simental’s balance and inner peace were likely soon upset when word got out that his special-use permit was pure fiction. The Inter Lake article spurred an ongoing investigation by multiple agencies, including Forest Service law enforcement, the Montana Board of Outfitters and the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said Mike Munoz, the district ranger for national forest’s Rocky Mountain Ranger District.
“Neither Summit Lodge nor Jorge Simental has a special use permit,” Munoz said. “We haven’t received any application do commercial aviation activities on the district. We have no intent to promote commercial aviation activities.”
While there is no blanket prohibition against landing a helicopter on non-Wilderness public lands, federal aviation rules require pilots to obtain permission from landowners before landing. The national forest has only allowed landings for administrative and emergency purposes, never for recreation, according to forest officials.
What consequences the various investigations will have for Simental are unclear. Authorities can hardly revoke permits and licenses that Simental has never held. Simental could not be reached for comment.
An insult to tradition
The specter of affluent tourists choppering into extraordinary backcountry like the Badger-Two Medicine, places that the rest of us get to on foot and horseback, rubs many Montanans the wrong way. Besides insulting the traditions of the Badger-Two Medicine, the helicopter access re-enforces the impression that the rich play be a different set of rules. News of Simental’s helicopter escapade angered outfitters as well as activists who are lobbying to shield the Rocky Mountain Front from industrial development and excessive motorized recreation.
“The idea that this could even happen is so repugnant to decency and fair play that it exceeds comprehension,” wrote Choteau businessman Stoney Burk, a leader in the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front, in an email to fellow conservationists. “This activity flies in the face of 50 years of environmental stewardship and it absolutely cannot be given one little bit of credence.”
(Full disclosure: I do communications work for the coalition as a staff member of The Wilderness Society.)
Simental recently purchased Summit Station, located on a 55-acre in-holding bordered by Glacier National Park and the Badger-Two Medicine, a largely unroaded stretch of national forest that holds significant cultural values to the Blackfeet Nation and vital wildlife habitat. The lodge is a base for high-end angling adventures and other outdoor activities. Neither the lodge nor Simental are licensed to guide anywhere in Montana, so they outsource these services, said lodge employee Joe Peterson.
According to the Inter Lake article, Reese recently accompanied some flyfishing guests on a flight piloted by Jim Kruger to a narrow canyon, where the guests cast dry flies into deep pools and lunched on “salad nicoise [that’s pronounced nee-SWAHZ] and smoked salmon served on a checkered tablecloth.” The spot was “deep” in the national forest, a place the article refers to as “Jorge Simental’s world.”
“I knew as soon as I stepped from the helicopter that this place, this unique part of the earth decided for some reason that I should be fortunate enough to experience it,” guest Julia Graham of Florida told the reporter.
The article identifies Kruger, a respected pilot with a long history of flying rescue missions and scenic overflights in Glacier National Park, as a key part of Simental’s helicopter outfitting service in the national forest. My call to Kruger was not returned.
No paying guests
Graham told me state wildlife officials have contacted her, but she was unable to tell them exactly where Simental took the group of anglers. The spot was several minutes of flight time up a beautiful valley, possibly in the Badger River drainage, where they intended to land at a lake, she told me. Because the destination was snowbound, they landed downstream. Graham said the trip was part of a photo shoot to be published in Montana Living and no one paid to be on the outing.
“If I was a paying for the trip, I would have caught a fish,” joked Graham, who said she was more of a photographic subject than a guided client.
The Inter Lake article also contains an item that would be of interest to tribal authorities. It claims Simental runs trips to nearby lakes on the Blackfeet Reservation, “where trophy rainbow trout can be caught with the help of Northern Rockies Outfitters.”
“I guess I’ll be hearing from the tribe,” said Rich Birdsell, the owner of Northern Rockies Outfitters. The Kalispell-based outfitter is not authorized to take clients fishing on the reservation, but his is the only angling outfit the Forest Service permits in the Badger Two-Medicine. Birdsell takes up to 10 clients a summer by foot to fish the South Fork of the Two Medicine River out of Rising Wolf Ranch. He told me Simental has discussed doing business with him in the Badger-Two Medicine, but to date Summit Station has sent only a few guests to fish with Birdsell on the Flathead River.
The Inter Lake published a follow-up article today, describing the various investigations into Simental’s operation.
When I called the Summit Station Lodge for comment, Peterson insisted Reese got the story wrong. The business does not operate on the national forest, but rather on adjacent tribal lands in Badger Canyon using Blackfeet fishing guides, he said.
But the place Reese and Graham described visiting seemed too far into the mountains to be on reservation lands. Reese said his story was based on information Simental provided.
Brian Maffly writes from Bozeman. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.