New Custer Gallatin Forest Plan is Good News for Winter Recreationists

The Custer Gallatin National Forest in Montana offers tremendous opportunities for ice climbing, skiing, snowmobiling, and more, and the newly revised forest plan is good news for everybody who cares about wild places and loves to play in the snow.

 Touring through the South Cottonwood Backcountry Area. Photo by Patrick Cross.

The Custer Gallatin National Forest uses a variety of management designations to preserve access for all types of winter recreation, thoughtfully manages the busiest parts of the forest, and protects opportunities for adventure, solitude, and the wilderness experience that so many forest visitors value. It also benefits wildlife, by protecting migration corridors and large blocks of secure habitat.

Crucially, to meet the needs of diverse users and protect natural values, the plan includes more nuance than we saw in the old forest plan.

Traditional designations like recommended wilderness remain a valuable tool in the Forest Service’s toolbox and the new forest plan includes important wilderness recommendations for the heart of the Gallatin range and Crazy Mountains. It also includes a number of backcountry areas, which provide remote, semi-primitive recreation opportunities. New development isn’t allowed in backcountry areas, nor is commercial logging, but motorized and mechanized recreation may be allowed, depending on the area. This is an important tool to protect wilderness experiences and undeveloped areas while allowing established motorized and mechanized recreation to continue.

The plan also designates several recreation emphasis areas. As the name suggests, these are frequently visited places that offer a variety of recreation opportunities and are accessible to a wide range of users.

Hyalite Canyon, outside of Bozeman, is one example.

Hyalite is known internationally for the proliferation of world-class waterfall ice routes that form in the upper canyon each winter. It’s also a place where you might go sledding at the reservoir with what seems to be half of Bozeman and then spend hours cross-country skiing without seeing another soul. In the forest plan, the Forest Service has committed to improving and increasing recreation resources in the lower, more developed reaches of Hyalite while maintaining the lesser-traveled upper reaches as they are today in order to continue to provide opportunities for a wide range of recreation uses.

South Cottonwood – Hyalite’s quieter neighbor – is protected as a non-motorized Backcountry Area in the new plan, which will keep the area as it is today for decades to come. For those who seek more remote backcountry adventures the South Cottonwood Backcountry Area will remain a close-to-home refuge from the bustle of town life. It’s a fitting tribute to the basin capped by a peak named in memory of the legendary mountaineer Alex Lowe.

Another new designation in the Custer Gallatin forest plan are Key Linkage Areas. This designation protects crucial wildlife movement corridors, limiting human activities and development to preserve animal migration routes. These work in concert with Backcountry Areas, Recommended Wilderness Areas, and designated Wilderness to provide secure wildlife habitat, and to connect the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem north towards the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.

WWA Policy Director, Hilary Eisen, recently spent a few days skiing across part of the Gallatin Range, in the western part of the forest. As she traveled through the mountains – and through newly designated Backcountry, Recreation Emphasis, and Key Linkage Areas – she reflected on the new forest plan and what it means for these places.

“From skate skiing to snowmobiling, ice climbing to ice fishing, there are a lot of ways people enjoy the Custer Gallatin in winter and we’re all sharing the landscape with an impressive array of wildlife species.” says Eisen. The new plan recognizes this and provides a management framework under which wildlife, and recreation, will continue to thrive.

Join Us for a Deep Dive via Zoom

The Custer Gallatin Forest Plan is seriously complex, and we want to make understanding it as easy as possible. We’d like to invite you to a virtual gathering with the Gallatin Forest Partnership on Thursday, March 10 to learn what the plan means for the Gallatin and Madison Ranges – what it does, what it doesn’t do, what’s missing, and what comes next.

What: Custer Gallatin Forest Plan deep dive

When: Thursday, March 10 from 5:30pm to 6:30pm

Where: Zoom

RSVP here!

Presenters from Winter Wildlands Alliance, Wild Montana, and the Livingston Bike Club will give you a place-by-place breakdown of all the details, answer your questions, and give a sneak peek into what may come next now that the forest planning process is done. We’re looking forward to seeing you there.