Apologizing the Montana Way

Perhaps rich folks think that hiring a PR firm to issue an apology is an acceptable practice

By Tammi Fisher

Montanans take our relationship with public lands very seriously. We hope that visitors and new residents to our state share the same reverence for our protected lands and animals as Montanans. Recently, two new residents to our state, Sara and Sam Schwerin chose to land their helicopter in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, an area federally protected from motorized vehicles. The couple landed their helicopter on a sand bar in the middle of the South Fork of the Flathead River to fish on opening day of the season.

Two Montanans observant of the wilderness restrictions approached the couple to inquire about the basis for landing an aircraft in a federally protected wilderness area. Allegedly, Mr. Schwerin responded with his belief that because the sandbar was “below the high water line,” the landing was legal. (“Below the high water mark” is the legal standard for public access to navigable water in Montana, i.e., the public is allowed access to all navigable waters up to the high watermark on a shoreline. This legal standard does not apply to protected wilderness areas.) After the Montanans informed the couple their landing was not permitted, Mr. Schwerin allegedly had the audacity to tell the Montanans to “move along.”

After the dismissive response by the couple, the witness heroes reported the matter to the U.S. Forest Service for investigation. Not surprisingly, the story began a storm of press coverage and outrage by Montanans. In response, the Schwerins hired a public relations firm to apologize for them and explain they “believed [the sandbar] to be outside the wilderness boundary.” This excuse is inconsistent with the statements of the witnesses, and its delivery is fatally flawed.

When I taught my children about apologizing, it was important that they understood the words mean little without accountability and an expression of empathy. So, after years of correction and eye-rolling, my teenagers have learned to apologize by stating, “I’m sorry for [the behavior] and that it made you feel [sad/disappointed/scared].” The goal, of course, is that by expressing an understanding of the behavior, that it is unacceptable, and that the behavior affects others, they may be inclined to refrain from repeating the errant behavior.

Perhaps rich folks think that hiring a PR firm to issue an apology is an acceptable practice. Or maybe the Schwerins used a PR firm so that the apology cannot be used against them in court. Regardless, the apology rings hollow and elicits the same outrage from Montanans as the offense itself. The Schwerins would be wise to apologize the Montana way: personally, truthfully, and accepting of whatever consequences due by law. Otherwise, the Schwerins should heed their own dismissive advice and “move along” back to New York City.

Tammi Fisher is an attorney and former mayor of Kalispell.