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The Custer Gallatin National Forest's new guiding doc

BOZEMAN - After six years and tens of thousands of public comments, one of the largest and most popular national forests in the Northern Rockies has a new forest plan to guide its management for the next 15 years.

The new forest plan will replace the 1986 and 1987 Custer and Gallatin forest plans. (Custer and Gallatin were combined in 2014. Prior to that they were separate national forests with individual forest plans.) The new plan fleshes out how the U.S. Forest Service will balance ecological, recreational and economic considerations in the most-visited national forest in Region One, which includes all of Montana and North Dakota as well as parts of Idaho and South Dakota. Forest Service Spokesperson Mariah Leuschen-Lonergan said 3.1 million visitors annually spend time in the Custer Gallatin, which encompasses more than 3 million acres across southern Montana and northwestern North Dakota.

plan rewrite process, the Forest Service held more than 100 public meetings and received tens of thousands of comments. Credit: Courtesy of Custer Gallatin National Forest

The effort to replace the nearly 40-year-old plans was launched in January 2016 with 15 community meetings and an assessment of existing forest conditions. In 2019, after issuing a draft plan, the Forest Service released a draft Environmental Impact Statement that included five potential land management visions for the forest. Each of those alternatives included some mix of recommended wilderness designation, motorized and mechanized use, and acreage eligible for timber harvest. The proposals also touched on varying approaches to livestock grazing leases, wild bison management, stream restoration, noxious weed treatment, and enhancement projects targeting at-risk plants and wildlife. The plan doesn't contain detail at the "project" level, so there are no specific timber sales, grazing allotments or thinning projects included in the 247-page document or its 335 pages of appendices.

The chosen alternative in the final plan is largely aligned with the preferred alternative in the final EIS, with a few tweaks to the forest's goat-packing program (an unexpected and emerging area of public interest, according to Forest Service spokesperson Mariah Leuschen-Longergan) and the addition of one recommended wilderness area and one backcountry area. Southwestern Montana's Cowboy Heaven is recommended for wilderness designation in the final plan, and the South Cottonwood drainage in Gallatin County is listed as a backcountry area - a management scheme that limits the addition of future recreational infrastructure in the interest of preserving the area's primitive character.


The public took a keen interest in recommended wilderness designation in its comments. While the Forest Service can't designate wilderness areas or Wild and Scenic Rivers - only Congress can do that - it can weigh in on which areas are appropriate for such designations and manage them for consistency with wilderness values until Congress takes up the issue. 

The five alternatives included in the EIS ranged widely in terms of recommended wilderness. At one extreme, there would be no new wilderness acreage added to the forest; at the other extreme, more than 700,000 acres of wilderness would be added. The old management framework included 34,000 acres of recommended wilderness on the forest, with many times that in wilderness limbo via Wilderness Study Area designation. There are currently 1,061,343 acres of designated wilderness within the forest boundaries. 

The final plan recommends seven new areas for wilderness designation in parts of the Gallatin and Madison ranges, the Crazy Mountains, and the Pryor Mountains. The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, which currently accounts for about one-third of the forest's total acreage, is also recommended for an 800-acre expansion. Together, the acreage recommended for wilderness designation in the new plan is close to 140,000 acres.

The Forest Service also listed 30 rivers and streams with potential for Wild and Scenic River treatment and designated two areas as Key Linkage Areas, a new land management category designed to protect wildlife habitat connectivity by specifying the kind of development that's permitted and limiting mountain bikes to approved system routes.

Bozeman resident Phil Knight, who sits on the board of the Gallatin Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance, said he's pleased that Cowboy Heaven was added to the list of recommended wilderness areas - it will help protect an important wildlife corridor between two units of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, he said - but would have preferred to see more acreage in the Gallatin Range that's currently under the Wilderness Study Area umbrella make it onto the list. (Wilderness Study Areas are areas with a primeval character that are awaiting a congressional decision to release them or designate full wilderness status. WSAs are generally managed as "de facto wilderness," though some forms of motorized and mechanized use are permitted to continue in the interim.)

Knight said it might be easier and less controversial to establish wilderness along the "rock and ice" portions of the Gallatin Range because there's less public use of high-elevation parcels, but he said the lower-elevation areas provide important wildlife habitat in a part of the state where development and population growth are exerting increasing pressure on animals.

"It's disappointing that ... they only plan to offer about 70,000 acres as recommended wilderness out of 155,00 acres of Wilderness Study Areas [in the Gallatin Range]," he said. "What will happen with the areas that are left out, like the Porcupine and Buffalo Horn?"

Under the new forest plan, the Crazy Mountains will receive one recommended wilderness and one backcountry area. The Bridgers will receive a key linkage area, a new designation for the forest.

Knight, who's been a Yellowstone National Park guide for 22 years, also said he wishes the Forest Service had done more to preserve roadless areas and wildlife migration corridors in the plan. 

"Every day, roadless areas are more rare, and thus more valuable. They're not making any more of it, and it's often some of the best remaining wildlife habitat just because of less human access. ... People have to work a little harder to get in there and maybe appreciate it more when they do," Knight said.

Kerry White, a former Republican state lawmaker from Gallatin Gateway who's advocated for expanded recreational infrastructure and motorized use on the Custer Gallatin for nearly 20 years, agrees with Knight on a couple of points. Although White and Knight have starkly different views of how the forest should be managed, both expressed disappointment with the final plan and agree that increasing public use of the forest - what Custer Gallatin Forest Supervisor Mary Erickson referred to as "high-density, high-complexity recreation areas" during a Jan. 28 press conference about the plan's finalization - requires a shift in the agency's management approach. 

During a typical summer day, more than 1,700 trips are taken in the Bridger Mountains north of Bozeman. Credit: Headwaters Economics

White said he wanted the Forest Service to limit wilderness recommendations, increase or expand trails, roads and campgrounds, and approve more acreage for timber harvest or grazing. An expansion of motorized and mechanized use, White said, would make the forest more accessible to a larger group of recreationists including the disabled, elderly and young - people who might struggle to enjoy the forest without the aid of ATVs, snowmobiles, motorized bikes and the like.

He said he'd like to see public use spread out over a broader swath of the forest to minimize the conflicts reported to him by members of Citizens for Balanced Use, the nonprofit he directs. 

"This is public land, and it seems like every action the Forest Service does, it removes the ability of the majority of the public to enjoy this public land, and I think it's wrong," he said. "The campgrounds in the Custer Gallatin are booked for a year, the rental cabins are booked out for a year, so where do people go? We have 2 to 3 million visitors coming through Yellowstone National Park and they can't come out of the park and go camping [in the Custer Gallatin]."

(According to the National Park Service, there were 4.8 million "recreation visits" across Yellowstone National Park in 2021.)

White also said grazing and active forest management are important tools to reduce fuel loading and mitigate wildfire risk, and said he'd like to see the forest managed "more like a garden than a wasteland" susceptible to fire.

Erickson addressed the issues of wildfire, forest health and livestock grazing in her remarks last week. 

The Custer Gallatin's westernmost district in southwestern Montana is about 400 miles from its easternmost district in northwestern South Dakota. The Absaroka-Beartooth Geographic Area, which includes Vista Point, pictured, contains the largest expanse of alpine plateaus in the Lower 48. Credit: Terry Jones, Retired USDA Forest Service

"We recognize that we're not going to avoid - nor do we want to avoid - disturbance events," she said. "We recognize that fire and insect [-related mortality] and disease are natural processes and we will respond and adapt to those over time. But we also recognize the need to manage forests, to really restore and maintain natural fire regimes and reduce the negative impacts from wildfire to safety, communities ... watersheds, infrastructure and habitat."

Erickson said districts on the eastern end of the forest have some of the largest grazing programs of any districts in the national forest system.

White said despite his organization's diligence about offering comments, there wasn't an alternative in the EIS that aligned with CBU's goals. 

"We read thousands and thousands of pages, and the Forest Service has ignored the voice of the multiple-use folks," White said. "It's disheartening."

He said CBU members are weighing their options now, which include challenging the plan in court. He also said he's leery of the time and cost to litigate the new plan, given the odds of a victory in the federal court system, which he said gives deference to federal agencies like the Forest Service.


The public's investment in forest management decisions is not lost on Erickson, who has often emphasized that if there's one through-line in the forest planning process, it's the level of engagement Montanans and South Dakotans have brought to the table. How that engagement translates to differing visions for the forest is something she's described as both a beauty and a challenge of public land management.

"It's one of the most diverse national forests in the system ecologically, socially, culturally and economically. We have rural communities with higher poverty levels, we have some fast-growing wealthier communities, and across the spectrum, people care deeply about this National Forest," she said. "[There's been] tremendous interest from the time we began this process all the way through the six years." 

One segment of the public that's issued a more full-throated approval of the plan is the Gallatin Forest Partnership, a collaborative that formed at the start of the planning process and focused its efforts on the management of the western reaches of the forest That partnership includes Wild Montana (formerly Montana Wilderness Association), Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the Montana chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, the Southwest Montana Mountain Bike Association, Gallatin Valley Back Country Horsemen, area business owners and others. Many of the components the Gallatin Forest Partnership pulled for are reflected in the new plan.

Adam Oliver, of the Southwest Montana Mountain Bike Association, praised the Forest Service for "providing certainty that favorite trails remain open to mountain bikes while also recommending wilderness and providing critical wildlife habitat protections" in a statement about the plan's adoption. Another member of the partnership, Chris Nygren with Gallatin Valley Back Country Horsemen, said the new plan "maintains important opportunities for traditional recreational saddle and pack stock," and congratulated the Forest Service on its finalization.

Wild Montana board member Shane Doyle expressed gratitude for some provisions in the plan specific to the Crazy Mountains and their importance to the Crow Tribe in an emailed statement about the plan's adoption from Wild Montana, a conservation nonprofit that's been active throughout the plan's rewrite.

"At the outset of the Forest planning process, achieving recommended Wilderness for the checkerboarded Crazies seemed like a remote possibility," he said. "Much to our delight, the Forest Service has indeed recommended Wilderness and created a large Backcountry Area in the range, offering protection of the mountains for the first time ever in recognition of how culturally vital they are for Absáalooke Nation and how ecologically extraordinary they are. We commend the Forest Service for working with the tribe, for acknowledging the Crazies as a sacred area to the Absáalooke people, and for honoring the tribe's treaty rights."

Erickson said the Forest Service considered traditional use areas, sacred sites, and treaty rights in the new plan. She said the agency coordinated with 18 tribes during the planning, some of which were more engaged in the process than others. 

Other subjects that received considerable public interest include the intersection of climate change and forest management, bighorn sheep conservation, and the Forest Service's approach to bison management, Erickson said. Part of the Custer Gallatin shares a border with the northern portion of Yellowstone National Park, making it one of the few national forests in such close proximity to wild bison herds.

The forest plan rewrite is required by the National Forest Management Act, which calls for national forests to review their forest plans every 10 to 15 years. Every two years, the Forest Service is also required to evaluate how well the plan is achieving the desired conditions and release a monitoring report to indicate whether changes to the plan and the forest's management is warranted.

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