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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

This guest post comes courtesy of our Red Lodge, MT based grassroots group, Beartooth Recreational Trails Association. 

The Beartooth Recreational Trails Association was the first Montana-based grassroots member of Winter Wildlands Alliance. They promote summer and winter trails in and around Red Lodge, MT, which includes operation of Red Lodge Nordic Center and grooming the West Fork (Forest Service) Road.

The West Fork, just 6 miles from town, offers something for everybody: walking, dog sledding, dog joring, snowshoeing, XC skiing (including track), skate skiing, and fat tire biking. Snowmobiling is also allowed, as there are privately owned cabins about 6 miles down the road. People also use snowmobiles on the road to access private cabins and the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness trailhead at the end of the road to ski and ice climb.

BRTA has had a permit to groom the West Fork road for several years, which benefits all users and keeps snow packed and fairly smooth into the spring. Their volunteer grooms 3-4 times a month; and this season they will have available for the first time a 4 stroke snowmobile pulling a modern Ginzu groomer for grooming fresh or old snow!

The Custer National Forest (now one half of the Custer-Gallatin) has not undertaken winter travel planning. This lack of planning means that the Forest Service does not have a definition nor any rules about tracked vehicles or what types of uses are allowed on the West Fork. This is problematic for BRTA’s grooming efforts and can cause conflicts. When tracked vehicles drive around the gate they can interfere with quiet recreation and destroy the grooming efforts. BRTA also encounters problems with horses on the snow pulling sleighs on runners, which also destroys the grooming efforts.

For many years BRTA has worked with the Forest Service to address the lack of signage, which is needed to govern all the users and reduce conflicts. They are also dealing with increased warm spells which deteriorate the snow. Other issues include a lack of parking; and this year, lack of a contractor to plow the 4 mile access road. Now they are working with private land owners, the Forest Service, and winter recreationists to raise money and come up with a plan to keep this access road plowed. The Custer Gallatin National Forest does not plow any Forest Service roads, but will plow parking lots.

To learn more about BRTA visit www.beartoothtrails.org