As the Custer Gallatin National Forest finalizes a plan that will guide management decisions for the next 15 to 30 years, a coalition of conservation and outdoor user groups is making one last push for that plan to add additional protection to an area called Cowboy Heaven.
Northeast of Ennis, a local outfitter leads several people on horseback up a steep, rocky trail. They pass through sagebrush country, which fades into forests speckled with snowberries and 300 year old Douglas firs.
John Gatchell, senior conservation advisor for the Montana Wilderness Association, slides off his saddle and stretches his legs.
“In the old days, when the Flying D Ranch, a very old Montana ranch, when they sent cowboys out on assignments to take care of the herds, this was the place they most wanted. So to them, this was the best assignment,” Gatchell says.
This 25,000 acre area is known as Cowboy Heaven. It’s a patchwork of federal and private land. Some of it is managed as ‘recommended wilderness’ to limit the human footprint on the landscape. Generally speaking, that means no ATVs, mountain bikes, chainsaws or new roads.
Gatchell and more than a dozen conservation and outdoor user groups want the Custer Gallatin National Forest to extend that designation to over 15,000 acres of Cowboy Heaven.
“The question is one of preserving wildness in the face of one of the fastest growing areas in the United States, Gallatin County,” Gatchell says.
He calls that section the missing piece, the keystone in an arch that can connect islands of designated wilderness and grizzly bear habitat to keep a large swath of the Madison range wild.
But Custer Gallatin’s nearly finalized revised forest plan doesn’t designate this section of Cowboy Heaven as recommended wilderness; rather, it’s a non motorized backcountry area.
Custer Gallatin spokesperson Mariah Leuschen-Lonergan says backcountry designations are meant to preserve low development areas. For example, existing activities like mountain biking and cattle grazing would still be allowed.
“But we’re not going to put a lot more infrastructure or development into those areas. They’re really going to keep their current footprint as is,” Leuschen-Lonergan says.
Next to the trail in Cowboy Heaven, Melissa Cronin with the Southwest Montana Mountain Bike Association says the Forest Service’s mention of mountain biking came as a surprise.
“It’s kind of like going to get your car worked on and you expect them to tell you that you need to get your oil changed but instead they tell you, you need to get your brakes changed,” Cronin says.
That’s because multiple mountain biking groups want this area as recommended wilderness even though it would limit their opportunity to recreate there.
They’re part of the Gallatin Forest Partnership, or GFP, which formed in 2016 to create a land management proposal for the Madison and Gallatin ranges as the Forest Service started the process of revising its Custer Gallatin plan.
GFP’s goals: protect wildlife habitat, clean water, undeveloped land and historic recreational use.
The Custer Gallatin National Forest included GFP’s proposal in its draft plan and incorporated some of its recommendations into the revised plan this summer, including the new Gallatin Crest Recommended Wilderness and adjacent backcountry areas.
Emily Cleveland is the senior field director with the Montana Wilderness Association, which is also a member of the GFP.
“There’s other designations that the GFP is advocating for in other places that balance different values. For example, high quality mountain biking or motorized recreation, things like that. But for places like Cowboy Heaven, we feel like recommended wilderness is the right designation,” Cleveland says.
But Mariah Leuschen-Lonergan with the Custer Gallatin Forest says recommending wilderness is complicated.
She says the forest supervisor decided the new forest plan would not recommend wilderness for areas with an administrative or rental cabin. Cowboy Heaven has an administrative cabin.
Leuschen-Lonergan says the backcountry designation would also provide the agency more flexibility to manage the primitive road and grazing, without the burden of upholding strict wilderness characteristics.
“In either case, recommended wilderness or backcountry, grazing could continue,” Leuschen-Lonergan says.
The Forest Service says the backcountry designation would also provide more options for future work to reduce fuels. Because Cowboy Heaven has an inventoried roadless designation from Congress, Leuschen-Lonergan says only small trees could be removed to improve habitat for threatened, endangered or sensitive wildlife or to restore an ecosystem.
While the Gallatin Forest Partnership’s proposal has gained widespread support from outdoor users and county commissioners, Leuschen-Lonergan says the Forest Service received comments from people who didn’t want to lose mechanized use in the Cowboy Heaven area. She says Gallatin County Commissioners also expressed hesitancy with endorsing the area as recommended wilderness.
The Forest Service is currently digging into the partnership’s and others’ objections about the proposed plan to see what issues could be resolved and will meet with certain stakeholders during meetings this fall or early winter.
The revised forest plan is expected to be implemented next spring.