Custer Gallatin Forest Planning
The Custer Gallatin National Forest stretches across 400 miles – from West Yellowstone, MT to Camp Crook, SD – and encompasses 9 different mountain ranges, including the highest peaks in Montana. The forest offers every kind of skiing imaginable and it’s home to some of the finest ice climbing in the country. Although people visit the Custer Gallatin in all seasons, it’s truly a special place for winter recreation enthusiasts.
The Custer Gallatin is within close proximity to one of the fastest growing communities in the country – Bozeman, MT – and the outdoor recreation opportunities on the forest are a major reason people are moving to the area. The forest is also an integral part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. There are few other places in the country where world-class outdoor recreation opportunities overlap with a landscape as wild, and intact, as the Custer Gallatin.
Right now the Forest Service is revising the Custer Gallatin Forest Plan and working to figure out how to manage the forest for the next 20-30 years. In this forest plan revision we are faced with the challenge of ensuring that growing populations and increasing recreation use on the forest are balanced with protecting the forest’s unique and important ecological role. With your help, we can strike that balance.
We are working closely with a number of partners on this forest plan revision. Winter Wildlands Alliance is a member of the Gallatin Forest Partnership (GFP) and helped to craft a proposal to protect the wildlife and undeveloped lands of the Gallatin and Madison ranges while also providing plenty of access for all the different ways people recreate within them. The GFP Agreement strives to balance conservation, recreation, and wildlife values and is supported by a wide range of people who live, work, and recreate in and around the Gallatin and Madison Ranges. We are also a member of Outdoor Alliance Montana (OAMT), and worked with our mountain bike, paddling, and climbing partners to develop a vision for the Custer Gallatin that seeks to protect wildlands and the wildlife they support while enhancing outdoor recreation opportunities. The OAMT vision includes the GFP Agreement as well as recommendations for areas of the forest beyond the Gallatin and Madison ranges. Click here to read more about OAMT’s vision for the Custer Gallatin.
In March the Forest Service published a draft plan and several alternatives for how they might manage the forest. The full shebang is online here (scroll down to the bottom of the page for maps). Comments were due on June 6, 2019 and we expect to see a final EIS in early 2020.
The draft plan isn’t bad and we’re generally supportive of Alternative C, but we have some suggestions for improving both as the Forest Service develops its final plan.
Alternative C and the draft plan include many parts of the GFP Agreement but they don’t include all of the detailed plan components and management direction that the GFP recommended. These details are critical to the overall GFP agreement and we’d like to see the full GFP Agreement included in the final plan.
Beyond the Gallatin and Madison Ranges, we are endorsing the Recommended Wilderness and Backcountry Area designations in Alternative C, with two modifications. We would like to see the rugged roadless lands to the west of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness – Chico Peak, Emigrant Peak, and Dome Mountain – recommended for Wilderness and we support a non-motorized backcountry designation for the Lionhead.
We’d like the final plan to designate popular recreation areas as Recreation Emphasis Areas. Designating Recreation Emphasis Areas is a way for the forest plan to address specific areas where many different recreational uses are concentrated. These areas receive more visitors than other areas of the forest and require special management direction to ensure that recreation within these areas is sustainable – both in terms of the public enjoying specific recreation opportunities, but also so that recreation uses do not degrade the natural environment.
We’re supportive of all of the Recreation Emphasis Areas in Alternative E with two modifications. The Hyalite Recreation Emphasis Area mapped in Alternative C matches what we, and the Gallatin Forest Partnership, have previously proposed and we’d like to see this version incorporated into the final plan. We’d also like to see the proposed Bridger Winter Recreation Emphasis Area expanded to include north from Bridger Bowl to Fairy Lake. The northern Bridgers are very popular with backcountry snowsports enthusiasts, from snowshoers to snowmobilers and receive a lot of use throughout the snow season.
We like that the Forest Service includes winter Recreation Opportunity Spectrum (ROS) maps in their alternatives but they need to put more thought into what the maps look like. The ROS determines where motorized use is suitable and the types of infrastructure that are appropriate in different parts of the forest and it is supposed to reflect desired future conditions. It lays the foundation for writing or updating a travel plan and it’s important that it accurately identifies where motorized use is suitable, taking into account social and environmental factors. Getting the winter ROS map right helps to protect areas for quiet recreation and is important in laying the groundwork for future site-specific winter travel decisions – whether it’s to update the Gallatin travel plan or to finally write a winter travel plan for the Custer (the revised forest plan should include a commitment to undertaking this process).
Each of the alternatives includes a different winter ROS map and all of them show a lot of places as suitable for over-snow vehicle use where we don’t believe that use is appropriate – either because it’s an area that doesn’t see enough snow for snowmobiling to be feasible, or because the area is an important refuge for skiers and snowshoers. In the final plan, the winter ROS maps must show desired future conditions reflecting where over-snow vehicles are ecologically, socially, and physically suitable, and not simply map where snowmobiles are currently allowed.
With your help we’re making sure the human-powered snowsports community is heard as the Custer Gallatin finalizes their plan. Here are the main points that backcountry skiers advocated for during the most recent comment period:
- Gallatin Forest Partnership Agreement – I support the Gallatin Forest Partnership Agreement and would like to see it adopted into the final plan.
- Wilderness – I support the Wilderness recommendations in Alternative C with the exception of the Lionhead, which should be managed as a non-motorized Backcountry Area. I would also like to see the roadless lands from Chico Peak to Dome Mountain recommended for Wilderness.
- Recreation Emphasis Areas – I support designating the Recreation Emphasis Areas identified in Alternative E with 2 modifications. The Bridger Winter Recreation Emphasis Area should be expanded north to Fairy Lake and I support the Hyalite Recreation Emphasis Area as described in Alternative C.
- Travel Management – The revised plan should include an objective to begin winter travel planning on the Custer portion of the forest within 1 year of completing forest plan revision. The winter ROS maps in the final forest plan must show desired future conditions reflecting where over-snow vehicles are ecologically, socially, and physically suitable, and not simply map where snowmobiles are currently allowed.
- Wildlife – The Forest Service should monitor wildlife populations across the forest, particularly in areas with high human use, and adapt recreation management as necessary to protect wildlife.
The draft EIS comment period ended in June 2019, but we’re continuing to talk with the Forest Service and advocate for these issues.
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