A plan to guide management of the nearly two million-acre Custer Gallatin National Forest was published on July 9th. The Custer Gallatin stretches from the northwest edge of Yellowstone National Park into South Dakota, encompasses nine different mountain ranges – including the highest peaks in Montana – and offers every kind of skiing imaginable. It is also home to some of the finest ice climbing in the country. For these reasons, Winter Wildlands Alliance has been deeply involved in this forest plan revision.

The new plan takes steps to protect wild lands, wildlife habitat, and quiet recreation. Most notably, it recommends Wilderness protections for the Gallatin Range and Crazy Mountains—the first time either of these areas have received such a recommendation. In addition to Wilderness recommendations, the plan includes other management prescriptions that protect undeveloped areas while allowing uses like mountain biking to continue within them. The plan also provides tools to promote and sustainably manage winter recreation in the Bridger Range, near West Yellowstone, and outside of Cooke City.

Now, we have 60 days to review the plan and let the Forest Service know what needs to be improved. If you’ve previously commented on the plan you have until September 8 to submit an objection (you can search for your comment on the Custer Gallatin here!). The objection process is the public’s last chance to influence the Forest Plan.

There’s a lot in this plan. To help break it down, we’ve outlined some of the pros and cons we’re seeing for each region in the forest.

Gallatin and Madison Ranges
We joined the Gallatin Forest Partnership in 2015 to advocate for wildlife protections, undeveloped lands, and recreation opportunities for all user groups. We’d like to see the Gallatin Forest Partnership Agreement reflected in the final plan. This draft brings us pretty close to the finish line.

The heart of the Gallatin Forest Partnership Agreement is a proposal for a Wilderness area in the Gallatin Range, and the forest plan includes a new Gallatin Crest Recommended Wilderness Area stretching from Yellowstone National Park to Hyalite Peak. It also includes a new Sawtooth Mountain Recommended Wilderness Area, adjacent to Yellowstone. While we’d like to see them connected, and slightly expanded, these newly recommended Wilderness areas are a huge conservation win.

The forest plan also uses a conservation tool called a Backcountry Management Area that protects land from development but keeps it open to existing recreation uses, including mountain biking. The Gallatin Forest Partnership Agreement calls for two Backcountry Management Areas in the Gallatin Range – Buffalo Horn and West Pine – and we’re glad to see these in the new plan. We are concerned, however, that the plan fails to include provisions to maintain the wild character and secure wildlife habitat in these areas.

Meanwhile, while the plan does recommend new Wilderness on the southern tip of the Madison Range, it does not recommend Cowboy Heaven, on the north end of the range. Cowboy Heaven provides critical lower elevation wildlife habitat and has been a conservation priority since it was left out of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness bill in 1983. The plan designates Cowboy Heaven as a Backcountry Area, but it is time to give this area the Wilderness protections it has long deserved.

For the Hyalite Recreation Area, the Forest Service took the GFP’s recommendation—but cut it to 33,269 acres, almost half. As currently written, the plan does not protect the extremely popular Sourdough Ski Trail or the backcountry ski zone in upper South Cottonwood. But, we’re glad to see that the plan keeps the high peaks in Hyalite wild by prohibiting new trail development in the upper canyon. And ice climbers and skiers can breathe a sigh of relief, as the new plan commits to continuing to work with partners to ensure the Hyalite Road is plowed each winter.

Bridger Mountains

A man of color with a disability of a leg amputation skiing on one ski down a 40 degree 10 ft wide snowy couloir with rock walls on either side. He's wearing a red ski jacket and black ski pants on an overcast day.

Vasu Sojitra skis The Ruler in the Bridgers. Land of the Niitsítapi (Blackfoot), Apsaalooké (Crow), Salish Kootenai (Flathead), Cheyenne, and Očeti Šakówiŋ (Sioux) peoples.

The new plan designates a Bridger Recreation Emphasis Area on the east side of the Bridger Range, as we recommended. This Recreation Emphasis Area includes Bridger Bowl Ski Resort, Crosscut Mountain Sports Center, and tons of undeveloped land that is highly valued by snowshoers, cross-country skiers, backcountry skiers and snowboarders, and snowmobilers.
However, the plan does not recognize that there is a need to update the 2006 Winter Travel Plan in the Bridgers. Over the past 14 years we’ve seen what works and what doesn’t. Targeted changes are necessary to reduce conflict.

Crazy Mountains
The new Plan brings significant conservation gains to the Crazy Mountains. For the first time ever, the Forest Service is recommending Wilderness in the Crazies, accompanied by a large Backcountry Area that will be closed to motorized recreation, logging, road building, and other forms of development.

The plan also designates an Area of Tribal Interest in the Crazy Mountains—the first time we’ve seen this designation in a Forest Plan—to recognize the traditional and ongoing cultural significance these mountains hold for the Apsáalooke (Crow). We’re glad to see the Forest Service committing to work more closely with the Crow Tribe and to honor treaty obligations.

Absaroka-Beartooth
While much of the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains are designated Wilderness, there is a lot at stake with the unprotected lands on the edges of the Wilderness. The new plan fails to recommend Emigrant Peak and Dome Mountain for Wilderness. These are the only major massifs in the range without Wilderness protections. The plan removes protections for several small areas adjacent to the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness that are currently recommended for Wilderness, including Republic Mountain,an iconic backcountry ski zone just outside of Cooke City. Not only does the plan rescind Republic Mountain’s Wilderness recommendation, it deems that this area is now suitable for snowmobile use. There is already ample snowmobile terrain in the Cooke City area on the north side of Highway 212 and absolutely no reason to open Republic Mountain to snowmobiles.

Next Steps
Over the next couple of months we will be digging into the new plan to fully understand what it means for conservation and winter recreation. We’ll also be crafting an objection to remedy the shortcomings that we find. We have one more chance to make sure this plan lives up to the landscape it will manage, and we’re committed to making sure the Forest Service gets it right!

If you’d like more information about how to submit your own objection, contact our Policy Director, at heisen@winterwildlands.org

The epicenter of a tragic wildfire in 1910, the Great Burn has been left alone for a century of regrowth. Today, it is a recommended wilderness area along the Montana-Idaho stateline with an abundance of wildlife habitat. As the Forest Service rewrites the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest Plan, the Great Burn needs continued protection.

President Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) into law on January 1, 1970. 

With summer solstice in the rearview mirror, it’s time to start looking forward to the coming winter! Just kidding. Here at Winter Wildlands we love summer too! Earlier this month our staff gathered for a staff retreat at City of Rocks to camp, talk shop, and climb rocks. We are excitedly planning our 8th Biennial Grassroots Advocacy Conference and Wild Weekend, all of which will be in Boise this October. Save the date for October 24-27, 2019!

This month on the policy front:

  • Washington D.C. — We’ve been keeping track of a number of good bills that are making their way through Congress. Some of the ones we’re supportive of include the Colorado Outdoor Recreation & Economy Act, the Roadless Area Conservation Act of 2019, and the Land and Water Conservation Fund Permanent Funding Act. There are many others too — we’ll continue to keep the Bill Tracker page on our website up-to-date, so check it out for the full list.
  • Forest Service planning and environmental assessment – On June 13th the Forest Service published proposed changes to its National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations. According to the Federal Register notice, the Forest Service is proposing to change its NEPA regulations to increase efficiency in its environmental analysis. While we definitely agree that the Forest Service could be more efficient when it comes to NEPA, we’re wary of much of what they’re proposing here. Many of the proposed changes appear to be aimed at reducing public input in public lands management and expediting logging and road building. Comments on the proposed changes are due August 12. We’re still analyzing what the Forest Service has proposed, so stay tuned!
  • Winter travel planning – in late May we participated in an objection resolution meeting for the Tahoe winter travel plan. Over the weeks following that meeting, we’ve been encouraged  The Stanislaus will be hosting a similar meeting in early August. And, we’re hoping to (finally) see a final winter travel plan on the Lassen National Forest this summer! Winter travel planning on the Shoshone is on hold while they hire a new Environmental Coordinator.

That’s all for now. I hope you’re enjoying the long days of summer and finding time to get out on our public lands!

Hilary Eisen
Policy Director

Shana Maziarz crosses the Hulahula River to start a long day of earning turns in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Brennan Lagasse

IT’S BEEN A COUPLE OF MONTHS since the last Winter Wildlands Alliance policy update, not because there’s nothing to talk about, but because I ducked out of the office this spring to track wolverines in Mongolia. While in Mongolia, I ran into some unexpected challenges that illustrated how climate change is impacting wild snowscapes across the globe. It reminded me that, as backcountry skiers, our adventures take us to the world’s wildest places and we’re often among the first to see them change. As credible witnesses to the impacts of a changing climate on our mountains and snowscapes, backcountry skiers are in a unique position to speak up.

This is why, earlier this month, with our Outdoor Alliance partners, we submitted a range of testimony to the House Subcommittee on National Forests, Parks, and Public Lands for a hearing on the impacts of climate change on public lands recreation (scroll down to see the letter we submitted). Testimony included front-lines accounts from Winter Wildlands Alliance ambassadors Caroline Gleich (writing from Mount Everest), Luc Mehl (from Alaska), Brennan Lagasse (recently returned to Lake Tahoe from the Arctic) and Clare Gallagher (from Colorado), as well as our friend Ben Hatchett, a climate researcher in Northern California/Nevada.

You can share your own experiences with lawmakers and urge them into action by joining the Adventurers for Climate Action campaign today!

Meanwhile, we’ve been staying busy this spring with ongoing winter travel planning and OSV use designation in California, among other things. Over the past couple of months, we filed an objection to the Stanislaus winter travel plan and participated in objection resolution meetings related to the Eldorado and Tahoe winter travel plans. Each of these plans has many positive elements, but through the objection process we hope to improve a few key shortcomings and help the Forest Service develop solid winter travel plans for the central and northern Sierra. We had similar objections to all three draft plans: we’re concerned about the designation of some high-value backcountry ski zones (and designated near-natural areas) for open snowmobile use, the failure to protect the non-motorized character and experience of the Pacific Crest Trail, and the failure to adequately address the Forest Service’s legal obligation to minimize over-snow vehicle impacts on natural resources and wildlife and on non-motorized activities.

Meanwhile, in Montana, forest planning on the Custer Gallatin is in full-swing. The Forest Service released a draft Environmental Impact Statement for the revised forest plan in early March. The comment period ends June 6. There are few places in the country where world-class outdoor recreation opportunities overlap with a landscape as wild, and intact, as the Custer Gallatin. Through work in a variety of coalitions, we’re advocating for a vision for the forest that balances conservation, recreation, and wildlife values. Find out more and submit a comment online here.

In other policy news, the state of Utah has petitioned the US Department of Agriculture and the Forest Service to exempt Utah from the Roadless Rule, which rule happens to protect the majority of backcountry ski terrain in Utah. We’re working with Wasatch Backcountry Alliance, Outdoor Alliance, and our partners in Utah’s conservation community to push back against this attack on the Roadless Rule. You can help out by sending a letter to USDA Secretary Perdue and Under Secretary Hubbard using Outdoor Alliance’s online form. Perdue and Hubbard have been feeling the heat and haven’t responded to Utah’s petition, yet. Help us keep the pressure on.

Finally, I want to bring your attention to Minnesota, where the Trump Administration recently renewed federal leases for a sulfide-ore copper mine on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The Boundary Waters are an amazing place to visit in winter, providing endless opportunities to cross-country ski, showshoe, and winter camp in one of the quietest places in the country. This week, Minnesota Representative Betty McCollum introduced legislation compelling the U.S. Forest Service to complete a study on toxic mining near the Boundary Waters and halt mineral leasing in the watershed of the Boundary Waters until the study is complete. Our partners at Save the Boundary Waters are leading the charge to protect this special place, and you can get involved here.

We’ve updated the Bill Tracker page on our website if you’re interested in seeing what other legislation we’re supporting, and tracking, on the Hill this year. There are a number of good bills, including bipartisan legislation to establish full and permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Act, a House bill to protect the Arctic Refuge, and legislation to codify the Roadless Rule and put an end to state-by-state exemptions from the Rule.

That’s all for now!

Hilary Eisen, Policy Director


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