The families of three men killed in a 1997 boat wreck on Lake Koocanusa are frustrated with the actions of a U.S. Forest Service employee who took down a lakeside memorial dedicated to their loved ones.
The memorial was erected shortly after Robert Blonshine and Thomas Wilson of Eureka and Donald James Letcher of Grasmere, British Columbia drowned in a boat wreck just south of the Koocanusa Bridge near Rexford. The family said the memorial was hard to see from a nearby road and was usually only visited by people who knew the victims. But officials with the Forest Service said it was illegal.
Blonshine, Wilson and Letcher were sailing with a fourth man, Ronald Lemer of Eureka, on April 27, 1997 when they encountered choppy waters with three- to four-foot waves near the Koocanusa Bridge. The four men ended up in the water when the boat capsized. Lemer was able to swim to shore, but by the time help arrived, the three other men in the water had died. The bodies of Letcher and Blonshine were pulled out of the lake, but Wilson’s body was never recovered.
The memorial on the west shore of Lake Koocanusa included a small wooden cross that was surrounded by stones. Family members had written their names and notes on the cross, but over the years the messages had weathered away. Blonshine’s daughter Renea said that as of earlier this year she could still see where she had carved the words “Love You Daddy” into the wood. Renea was 13 when her father died.
Over the years, people would frequently leave mementos like coins or unopened beer cans. But in September, Renea and her mother, Michelle Armstrong, learned the memorial had gone missing.
“I was shocked,” Renea said of when she found out the memorial was gone. “I cried.”
The family learned that a Forest Service law enforcement officer had discovered the memorial and took it down. The rocks were thrown over the edge and the cross was thrown in a dumpster.
“We’re heartbroken,” Armstrong said.
Bryan Donner, district ranger for the Rexford area, said there are rules against having memorials on federal forestland and that the officer who took it down thought it was abandoned.
“There were beer cans and broken glass around it, and the ranger said that it appeared it was not being maintained,” Donner said.
Donner said one reason memorials are not allowed on federal land is that the Forest Service doesn’t have the ability to maintain them all.
But Michelle Armstrong doesn’t buy that.
“The memorial has been there for 22 years and it wasn’t a problem. Now it’s suddenly a problem?” she said.
Armstrong has talked to officials with the Forest Service, and Donner confirmed that he wants to find a solution to the issue. “What that might look like” is unclear at this time, he said.
This is not the first time the removal of a memorial on the Kootenai National Forest has upset people recently. Earlier this year, the USFS refused to issue a permit to two men who wanted to fly an American flag atop the remote Northwest Peak. The agency argued that, like the memorial on Koocanusa, it did not have the resources to maintain it. The Forest Service eventually issued a permit to let the flag be flown when people were on the mountain.