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

We all experience moments of uncertainty. But the mountains teach us to lean into our challenges with curiosity, openness, care, and compassion. Now, as COVID-19 washes through our communities, our homes, our thoughts, and our bodies, this is a skill that we need more than ever. This is one we need to lean into.

If you’ve skied, snowshoed, or otherwise played in the snow in southern Utah, please help us out by taking this survey. Quantifying the economic impact of human-powered snowsports on the Manti La Sal National Forest will help us to advocate for snowsports enthusiasts and make a case for protecting and encouraging winter recreation opportunities in the upcoming forest plan revision.

The U.S. Forest Service has proposed to exempt the Tongass from the Roadless Rule, which would open a vital carbon sink to logging and mining. The deadline for public comment is December 17.

The Tongass is the largest national forest in the United States—17 million acres of temperate rainforest that stretches down the panhandle in Southeast Alaska. Home to old growth trees and tons of wildlife, including whales, salmon, bears, and bald eagles, the Tongass also holds tremendous value for carbon sequestration and climate change mitigation. The U.S. Forest Service estimates the Tongass stores 10 to 12 percent of the total carbon captured by America’s national forests.

Right now, the U.S. Forest Service has proposed exempting the entire Tongass National Forest from the Roadless Rule. Why does this matter? The Roadless Rule is an important tool that protects wild landscapes on U.S. Forest Service lands. The proposal would open the world’s largest remaining temperate rainforest—a critical resource in the fight against climate change—to logging. For reasons of conservation, recreation, and climate action, we can’t let this happen.

 

 

Check out this beautiful film by one of our grassroots groups, Friends of Plumas Wilderness. “Visions of the Lost Sierra” is about the Wild & Scenic Middle Fork Feather River. The Middle Fork was one of the first eight rivers in the country protected by Congress through the National Wild & Scenic Rivers Act in 1968.

Without the National Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, the Middle Fork would’ve been dammed long ago—but the Act only protects a half-mile wide corridor along the river. That means adjacent wild lands and rivers in the Lost Sierra remain threatened by illegal roads, dumping, marijuana grows, and dredging, all of which could pollute the primary water source for 27 million Californians. Also, there’s an increased pressure to build more dams in California, jeopardizing our region’s untamed, free-flowing rivers. 

The documentary is an interesting look at the original work done by local wild river advocates in the 60s and addresses why we need to continue to push for more protections.

It’s a short film but if you don’t have 14 minutes to watch it, please take a minute to fill out the petition to expand wilderness designations in our region to permanently protect our public lands and free-flowing rivers. 

Sign the petition here.

For more about the Plumas National Forest, read up on the latest developments with Winter Travel Planning.