If you like to get outside and explore the Custer Gallatin National Forest in Montana, you have the chance to weigh in on how this land will be managed for the next few decades. The Forest Service recently released a draft plan that includes several different alternatives for how it could manage the forest, and it wants to hear from you. Until June 6, the Forest Service is accepting comments on this draft plan for the Custer Gallatin.
The draft plan and alternatives are 900 pages (and that’s not counting the appendices!), so if you don’t have time to wade through it on your own, we are here to make sure you don’t have to. Outdoor Alliance and our partners on the ground in Montana, including Montana Backcountry Alliance, Southwest Montana Mountain Bike Association, and Southwest Montana Climbers Coalition have provided helpful analysis of the draft plan that you can use when sending a message to the Forest Service. We have even submitted our own vision and proposal for how to manage key areas (check it out here).
Ready to submit a comment now? We’ve made it as easy as possible with this tool, including guiding questions and a draft comment you can use:
What makes the Custer Gallatin special?
The Custer Gallatin is home to some of the most amazing recreation in the country. It includes world-class ice climbing in Hyalite Canyon; backcountry skiing, mountaineering, backpacking in the Absaroka-Beartooth and Lee Metcalf Wilderness areas, and paddling that draw people from across the country; excellent rock climbing and great backcountry mountain biking in the Lionhead that has been cherished and maintained by locals for years. These activities all contribute $223 million to the local economy.
Beyond being an incredible destination for outdoor recreation, the Custer Gallatin is part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which is one of the largest nearly intact ecosystems in the country. It’s a rare and wild place where it’s easy to find big adventures close to home. The Custer Gallatin’s abundance of wildlife, wilderness, and roadless landscapes makes the forest unique, a critical piece of the larger ecosystem, and valuable for the human-powered outdoor recreation community as well as the many sportsmen and women in the area.
Outdoor Alliance’s goal is to protect and improve people’s experiences outside, along with protecting the wildness of the landscape and the wildlife that depend upon it, without which the forest wouldn’t be what it is today.
What are the challenges that forest planning is trying to solve?
There are a few challenges facing the Custer Gallatin National Forest that the Forest Service is trying to address in its draft plan.
First, the communities around the Custer Gallatin are quickly growing. Bozeman is one of the fastest growing cities in the country, so there are more visitors to the forest every year. As more and more people get outside, it does put pressure on the forest and the Forest Service needs a management plan that can adapt and help sustain increased use while still protecting the experiences people love, including the feeling of getting away from it all.
Climate change poses a challenge for forests across the country, including the Custer Gallatin where things are generally warmer and drier than they once were. Wildfires, insect and disease outbreaks, fish kills in the Yellowstone River, and melting glaciers are among the issues the Custer Gallatin must grapple with as the climate warms. The new plan must consider how to protect the Custer Gallatin in the face of a changing climate.
What does Outdoor Alliance think the Forest Service should do in the final plan?
Right now, the Forest Service is offering several different alternative management plans for the forest. None of them is perfect, but there are pieces from three of the alternatives that combined will make a very good plan. Alternative C is a good starting place, but we have some critical recommendations for improving it. Our Outdoor Alliance Montana network has crafted and shared its own vision for the Custer Gallatin, which you can read in full here and is highlighted below.
Outdoor Alliance members are also part of the Gallatin Forest Partnership (GFP) which has created a broader proposal to protect the Gallatin and Madison Ranges, places we all love for their wildlife, clean water and undeveloped lands - while also providing recommendations for maintaining access for all the different ways we recreate within them. The Gallatin Forest Partnership 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. This covers a good chunk of the Custer Gallatin National Forest and Alternative C includes many parts of the GFP Agreement. We would like to see the full GFP Agreement included in the final plan.
As mentioned, Outdoor Alliance Montana has also created a vision that goes beyond the GFP recommendations to include protections for sustainable recreation across the forest, including mountain biking. Beyond the Gallatin and Madison Ranges, we are endorsing the Recommended Wilderness designations in Alternative C, with the exception of the Lionhead area and the addition of the Chico, Emigrant, and Dome Mountain roadless areas. We recommend support designating the Lionhead area as a non-motorized Backcountry Area, and support the other Backcountry Areas designated in Alternative C in order to ensure mountain biking can continue in these places while still protecting their ecological values. We would also like to see the Forest Service expand the eligible Wild and Scenic river segments to include gems like Sweetgrass Creek. Finally, we would like the final plan to include all of the recreation emphasis areas in Alternative E.
To get down to specifics, here’s what we think should be included in the final plan, much of which is adapted from the Outdoor Alliance Montana vision for the Custer Gallatin:
Gallatin Forest Partnership Agreement – We support the Gallatin Forest Partnership Agreement and would like to see it adopted into the final plan.
Wilderness – Designated Wilderness is an important recreational resource on the Custer Gallatin. Hikers, trail runners, backpackers, backcountry skiers, cross-country skiers, snowshoers, paddlers, climbers, and more all recreate within and highly value the unconfined, primitive, recreation experience that Wilderness provides. For this reason, we want to see additional areas recommended for Wilderness in the final plan, and importantly, our team has vetted these areas to avoid affecting existing mountain bike trails. Our priorities include the Gallatin Crest and the rugged roadless lands to the west of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness – Chico Peak, Emigrant Peak, and Dome Mountain.
Backcountry Areas – There are some undeveloped areas of the Custer Gallatin that are valued for mountain biking and other recreation that requires more flexible management than recommended Wilderness. There are three areas in particular where we support a non-motorized Backcountry Area designation to preserve the area as it is now, including access for mountain biking: Lionhead, Porcupine-Buffalo Horn, and West Pine.
Wild and Scenic Rivers – In addition to the 30 streams found to be Wild and Scenic eligible in the Proposed Action, which we strongly support, we advocate that the forest add the following streams to its eligibility inventory. They are all free-flowing, possess at least one outstanding remarkable value, and are conservation priorities for the paddling community:
Bear Creek, Absaroka Mountains
Buffalo Creek, Absaroka Mountains
Hellroaring Creek, Absaroka Mountains
Porcupine Creek, Gallatin Range
South Fork Madison River, Hebgen Basin
Taylor Creek, Ashland Geographic Area
Taylor Fork River, Madison Mountains
Sweetgrass Creek, Crazy Mountains
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, and also so that recreation uses do not degrade the natural environment. We support all of the Recreation Emphasis Areas in Alternative E with two modifications: we would like to see the Bridger Winter Recreation Emphasis Area expanded to include the Northern Bridgers, which are very popular with backcountry snowsports enthusiasts; and we support the GFP’s proposal for a Hyalite Recreation Emphasis Area as included in Alternative C.
Wildlife – To address recreation impacts to wildlife, the Forest Service should monitor wildlife populations across the forest and adapt recreation management as necessary to protect wildlife. Any necessary management prescriptions or use limitations regarding wildlife protection should be equitably applied across user groups and carefully tailored to the needs driving the management action.