The Custer Gallatin National Forest recently released a plan that will guide conservation, recreation and industry decisions on more than 3 million acres for the next decade or more.
The Custer Gallatin National Forest stretches from the northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park to South Dakota. It’s home to Montana’s highest peaks, iconic wildlife and the Stillwater Complex, the only primary producer of palladium and platinum in the U.S.
The Forest Service unveiled its nearly 250 page management plan on July 9 after dozens of meetings and around 21,000 public comments. People who provided input during the four year process have until Sept. 8 to submit any objections. A finalized version of the plan will be released next year.
The Forest Service currently uses management plans from the 1980's when the Custer and Gallatin forests were two separate administrative units. The agency says the 2020 plan is a much needed update and takes into account new laws, threats like climate change and more recreationists on the landscape.
In a YouTube video posted the day of the plan’s release, Supervisor Mary Erickson said the Hyalite Porcupine Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area in the Gallatin Range was at the top of the list for public comments. She said feedback ranged from “‘that area should be released for all multiple uses that have been there in the past or that could be there in the future with no special designation’ to people who wanted the entire Gallatin Crest and all inventoried roadless areas recommended as wilderness,” Erickson said.
An act of Congress is required to officially designate wilderness.
The new plan recommends around half of the entire 155,000 acre study area as wilderness and two adjacent backcountry management areas. The backcountry designation protects land from development and locks in existing recreational activity.
Erickson said the Forest Service incorporated many of the suggestions from the Gallatin Forest Partnership. It’s made up of about a dozen conservation and outdoor user groups, including Winter Wildlands Alliance where Hilary Eisen is the policy director.
“The Gallatin Range has never had any previously recommended wilderness in it, and for the first time, the Forest Service has moved to protect an area stretching from the boundary of Yellowstone National Park all the way to Hyalite Peak,” Eisen said.
Eisen says the Gallatin Forest Partnership is excited to see the recommended Gallatin Crest Wilderness and adjacent backcountry areas in the plan. But she says they were disappointed some details in their proposal had been left out, including certain seasonal recreation closures in the backcountry areas to protect wildlife and more acres included in the recreation emphasis area designations in the Hyalite drainage near Bozeman.
The Gallatin Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance, a Bozeman based non profit, said in a press release it was disappointed the entire Hyalite Porcupine Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area isn’t recommended wilderness.
Board member Nancy Ostlie said the Forest Service “dropped major portions as sacrifice zones for motorized and mechanized play.”
The Gallatin Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance and the Gallatin Forest Partnership had also pushed for the Cowboy Heaven area in the Madison Range to be recommended wilderness. The new plan designates the nearly 18,000 acre section adjacent to the Lee Metcal Wilderness as a non motorized backcountry area.
Hilary Eisen with the Gallatin Forest Partnership said part of the Forest Service’s rationale had to do with mountain bike use.
“But there are a number of mountain bike organizations within the Gallatin Forest Partnership, Southwest Montana Mountain Bike Association, Livingston Bike Club and the Big Sky Mountain Bike Alliance, all of whom helped to develop the partnership agreement and support recommended wilderness for Cowboy Heaven,” Eisen said.
Several organizations disagreed with the decision for the Lionhead area near West Yellowstone, a popular mountain biking destination. The Gallatin Wilderness Alliance and Montana Wilderness Association said they were disappointed the Forest Service dropped the recommended wilderness designation from the 1987 Gallatin Forest Plan. The new plan re-designates the Lionhead as a non motorized backcountry area, something the Southwest Montana Mountain Bike Association has supported.
The new plan says over half a million acres, around 19 percent of the Custer Gallatin Forest, are considered suitable for timber production. A Forest Service official told YPR this means “These lands are physically and biologically capable of timber production and regularly scheduled timber harvest is possible within the constraints of the plan.”
An additional 20 percent of the forest is available for timber harvest to meet multiple use purposes like wildlife habitat restoration.
The plan sets the sustained yield limit, the total amount of timber that can be removed from the Custer Gallatin, at 38.25 million board feet per year.
But preparing and offering timber sales requires funding to pay for environmental analysis and other associated costs. The Forest Service says the expected amount of timber harvested over the lifespan of the new plan depends on the agency’s budget. Based on recent years, the agency expects around 26 percent of the sustained yield limit will be harvested.
A Forest Service official told YPR, “Revenue generated from timber harvest generally goes to the federal treasury and thus increasing timber volumes sold does not increase the budget of the Custer Gallatin National Forest.”
Ed Regan is the resource manager for RY Timber.
“RY was disappointed with the Custer Gallatin Plan because the proposed annual timber harvests fall way short of the sustained yield,” Regan said.
Regan says RY Timber wanted to see the goal at 100 percent of the sustained yield limit.
“RY Timber feels that the goal should be 100 percent of the sustained yield at 38 million feet per year,” Regan said.
A unique aspect of the new Custer Gallatin National Forest Plan is that it recognizes ‘Areas of Tribal Interest,’ including the traditional and ongoing cultural significance of the Crazy Mountains for the Apsáalooke or Crow People.
Crow tribal officials and members have been calling for protections and access to sacred sites in the Crazies, as well as the Pryor and Beartooth Mountains, for years.
In a guest opinion piece published in the Billings Gazette last year, Shane Doyle, A.J. Not Afraid and Adrian Bird, Jr. asked the Forest Service to “not expand mechanized and motorized travel in the Crazies. We are also asking the agency to not allow mining, the building of any new roads, construction of any new energy or utility corridors, or development of any new recreation sites or facilities.”
The new forest plan recommends more than 10,000 acres of designated wilderness in the South Crazy Mountains and around 28,000 acres of backcountry on the north side of the range.
In a press release from the Montana Wilderness Association, Crow Tribal member and founder of Native Nexus Consulting Shane Doyle said, “I’m extremely encouraged, especially given the time we’re living in, that the Forest Service chose to honor that historical and spiritual connection we have to these mountains and to protect the sanctity we go there to find.”
The Custer Gallatin Forest Plan also outlines steps to support a year round bison population in “unoccupied, suitable habitat in the area that coincides with the grizzly bear primary conservation area.” The plan says the agency will implement three projects every three years to improve and connect bison habitat.