The Gallatin Forest Partnership — a group of local hunters, anglers, mountain bikers, conservationists, horseback riders, skiers, business owners and citizens who care deeply about the Gallatin and Madison ranges — is working together to chart a future for the Gallatin and Madison ranges that protects the wildlife, clean water, wilderness, and recreation opportunities so important to all of us. Together, we’ve built broad support for a community-developed proposal with endorsements from nearly 100 individuals and 100 organizations and businesses, including the Park, Gallatin, and Madison County Commissions.
Our agreement took an important step forward when the Custer Gallatin National Forest released its draft Final Forest Plan in early July. We’re pleased that the Forest Service has incorporated important aspects of the agreement into the Forest Plan. We will continue working together to ensure that some missing elements are added to the final plan.
The good news
In her draft decision, Forest Supervisor Mary Erickson wrote that, regarding the Madison and Gallatin ranges, she “found the work of the Gallatin Forest Partnership to be the most compelling. … due to the area-specific recommendations combined with local knowledge, and the outreach and coalition-building across diverse interests that accompanied their proposal.”
In accordance with the GFP agreement, the Forest Plan recommends designating new wilderness along the Gallatin Crest and around Sawtooth Mountain, critical wildlife corridors between Yellowstone National Park and Hyalite Peak in the heart of the Hyalite Porcupine Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area. This is a historic recommendation in a landscape for which the Forest Service previously recommended zero acres of wilderness.
The Plan designates West Pine as a non-motorized backcountry area to keep the northeast corner of the WSA undeveloped, a marked improvement for an area that almost lost all protection in the 1988 Montana Wilderness bill. The Forest Service also included provisions embracing the GFP’s recommendation to improve mountain bike access in the area.
Finally, the final forest plan prohibits future development and secures existing recreational access for mountain bikes, dirt bikes, and snowmobiles in the Buffalo Horn Backcountry Area, key tenets of the GFP agreement.
Room for improvement
We are disappointed that some significant elements of our agreement were omitted, however, and believe they represent an opportunity to further strengthen the new plan.
The Forest Service overlooked the Partnership’s recommendation for wilderness in Cowboy Heaven in the Madison Range, replacing it with a backcountry area designation, in part for mountain bike access. The Southwest Montana Mountain Bike Association, Livingston Bike Club and Big Sky Mountain Bike Alliance all helped develop the Partnership’s agreement to balance mountain bike access along the edge of Cowboy Heaven with the strong protections of wilderness for this area that connects the Spanish Peaks and Bear Trap units of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. Dropping Cowboy Heaven from wilderness recommendations makes no sense.
In Hyalite Canyon, the Forest Plan cuts the Partnership’s proposed Watershed Protection and Recreation Area in half, excluding South Cottonwood, Mt. Blackmore, and the Bozeman Creek watershed, with no apparent explanation. These are some of the most heavily used areas in the Gallatin Range, as well as the headwaters of streams that provide clean water to the Gallatin Valley. Not doing more to protect these areas is a significant oversight.
Some elements of the plan also present challenges for the Partnership’s vision of an improved trail connection from West Pine to Bear Lakes. Our agreement is intentionally crafted to balance the interests of each partner. We are committed to ensuring everyone’s interests are met.
The Forest Service’s new plan is an important positive step toward protecting the Madison and Gallatin Ranges, though work remains to be done. We’re looking forward to helping the Custer Gallatin secure wild places, recreational access, wildlife habitat, and clean water for all forest users by fully implementing the Gallatin Forest Partnership agreement.
Steve Johnson is a resident of Big Sky. Emily Cleveland is Montana Wilderness Association’s senior field director. John Greene is a member of Livingston Bike Club.