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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

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.

I can’t believe we’re only a couple weeks out from the Grassroots Advocacy Conference! There’s still time left to register—don’t miss out on this amazing opportunity to learn about the latest developments in policy and planning issues, gain new advocacy tools, and network with other human-powered winter recreation advocates! 

Last month, I was in D.C. with the Access Fund and American Alpine Club for their 4th annual Climb The Hill. It was an opportunity for Winter Wildlands Alliance to join forces with the climbing community and educate representatives, policy makers, and top land management administrators on the importance of public lands, outdoor recreation, and climate change. We also joined the D.C. Youth Climate Strike activists on their march to Capitol Hill to call for an eventual end to the use of fossil fuels. It was 90 degrees during the Climate March—unseasonably warm, even for D.C.

Back in the office, David and I have been working with Snowlands Network, Friends of Plumas Wilderness, and the Pacific Crest Trail Association to review and craft objections to the (almost-final) Plumas Winter Travel Plan. The Plumas is the last of the 5 California National Forests that started winter travel planning right after the Over-Snow Vehicle Rule was finalized in 2015. We’ve seen some dramatic improvements in in Forest Service winter travel planning as we’ve been working on these plans and the Plumas definitely gets a gold star for “most improved.” Overall, we’re pretty happy with the Plumas plan, and our objections are focused on making a few targeted improvements to better protect historic backcountry ski zones.

Elsewhere in California, David has been leading the charge on Sierra and Sequoia forest planning. In conjunction with our Outdoor Alliance partners, we’re advocating for new Recommended Wilderness areas, better and more sustainable management of outdoor recreation, and protections for backcountry areas that support a wide range of outdoor recreation activities.

We’ve also been working with partners in Alaska to review the Chugach National Forest’s draft forest plan. We’re very concerned about the Forest Service’s proposals to decrease protections for the 1.9 million acre Nellie Juan-College Fjord Wilderness Study Area in the Prince William Sound. Despite strong public support for increasing protections for this amazing place, the Forest Service has decided not to recommend key parts of the WSA for Wilderness and they’ve cut important Wilderness management language out of the plan. We’ll be filing an objection to the draft plan to fight for the Wilderness Study Area.

It’s been a busy month at Winter Wildlands Alliance. David Page, our advocacy director, has been road-tripping across California, going from Stanislaus travel planning meetings to Sierra-Sequoia forest planning meetings to California outdoor recreation lobbying days in Sacramento and then more travel planning meetings. Meanwhile, I jetted across the country to Washington D.C. to tout our vision for the Custer Gallatin forest plan and talk policy with the Forest Service Washington Office. Actually, I climbed a number of hills this month: after Capitol Hill, I went to the Wind River Range for some backcountry climbing. And throughout it all, we have been planning the 8th Biennial Grassroots Advocacy Conference.

Grassroots Advocacy Conference
October 24-27
Join policy makers, athletes, grassroots activists, scientists, educators, and other recreation and conservation stakeholders and activists from across the country for two full days of engaging workshops and discussions on issues important to public lands, winter and sustainable recreation. Get the latest developments in policy and planning issues, share grassroots successes and strategies, meet with public land managers, gain new advocacy tools and spend quality time with colleagues, partners, new friends and allies. Visit the conference website find out more and to register!

NEPA
This is where you and the rest of our members and community have been instrumental. Together, we rallied 600 letters to send to the U.S. Forest Service about their proposed revisions to their NEPA regulations. The agency received more than 42,000 letters total. Forest Service officials have assured us the proposed revisions are a starting place and they will be taking public comments seriously as they develop the final rule. If you’d like to read the letter we sent the U.S. Forest Service, you can read it here. They have certainly heard an earful about the importance of scoping and concern about many of the proposed new Categorical Exclusions, so hopefully they make some serious changes!

Travel Planning
Earlier this month, the Stanislaus National Forest hosted an objection resolution meeting concerning their winter travel plan. This was the last public step in the winter travel planning process and a chance for anybody who filed an objection to the draft plan to discuss their objections and proposed resolutions. We objected to the Stanislaus amending its forest plan to permit motorized use in highly sensitive Near Natural Areas (critical habitat for the endangered Sierra Nevada Red Fox). We also objected to the Stanislaus designating a few important backcountry ski zones for snowmobile use and not properly managing motorized use adjacent to the Pacific Crest Trail. The objection meeting had many participants with different opinions, and now it’s up to the Forest Service to take everything they heard and decide what, if any, changes they’ll make before finalizing the winter travel plan.

The Plumas National Forest published a draft winter travel plan and final EIS last week. We’re still reviewing it, but our partners at Friends of Plumas Wilderness are tentatively optimistic about the plan. Objections to the Plumas draft plan are due in early October.

Forest Planning
I went to Washington DC earlier this month with two colleagues from our Outdoor Alliance Montana coalition (representing Southwest Montana Mountain Bike Association and the paddling community). We met with the USDA Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment and the Forest Service staff who oversee forest planning and the dispersed recreation, Wilderness, and travel management programs. We discussed the vital importance of forest planning, specific issues facing the Custer Gallatin, and the Outdoor Alliance Montana vision for the revised forest plan.

Meanwhile, David has been working with Outdoor Alliance California to review and comment on the Sierra and Sequoia forest plans. The draft plans were published in June and the comment period wraps up on September 26. The Sierra and Sequoia face the challenge of integrating and managing for outdoor recreation, traditional timber interests, and wildland conservation. We’re working with recreation and conservation partners to create and advocate for vision for the Sierra and Sequoia that meets these challenges.

The Custer Gallatin National Forest has released a Proposed Action for its forest plan revision. This is the Forest Service’s initial proposal for how it might face the challenges of ensuring that growing populations and increasing recreation use on the forest are balanced with protecting the forest’s unique and important ecological role.

Based on the comments they receive between now and March 5 on the Proposed Action, the Forest Service will develop a range of Alternatives. The final revised forest plan will evolve out of that range of Alternatives, so your comments now have a big impact. For more details on the plan and our perspective on it, click here. Otherwise, please submit a comment today using the form below. Editable comments are provided in the message window on page 2.