For the next 10 to 15 years the Custer Gallatin National Forest is planning three to six projects a year to cut trees, light prescribed fires and conduct other habitat restoration projects across 50 to 5,000 acres without public review.
The Forest Service announced the decision this week as part of its ecotonal habitat restoration projects. Ecotones are transition areas between two differing vegetation types or communities.
The purpose of the projects “is to restore the health and vigor of ecotonal communities to improve wildlife habitat, timber stand condition in forested ecotones and watershed health through stream and riparian habitat maintenance,” the decision memo noted.
“The project calls for 75,000 acres of logging and burning over the next 15 years,” said Mike Garrity of Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “Even though the Forest Service calls it treatment, there is no scientific evidence that the Custer Gallatin National Forest needs more logging and prescribed burning.”
The Custer Gallatin National Forest will focus on six ecotones: aspen, whitebark and limber pine, grassland/forest interface, riparian areas, woody draws and montane ponderosa pine.
“Though these communities occupy a small footprint across the forest landscape, they are disproportionately important for wildlife and biodiversity,” said Mary Erickson, forest supervisor, in a press release.
It will be up to the district rangers to decide whether the projects are publicized to seek input, said Marna Daley, forest spokeswoman.
“Not every project is created equally,” Daley said. “And the project work that would be occurring is very minimal.”
Not all of the work would require vegetation removal, she added. Some may involve planting as part of the restoration work.
Yet the decision notice invokes the use of categorical exclusions. Categorical exclusions were enacted during the Obama administration to reduce project delays and paperwork for federal agencies, provided they met certain parameters. Hence, no environmental impact statement or environmental assessment is required if the Forest Service work is deemed to not “have a significant effect on the human environment.”
The exclusions are an amendment to the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires the two types of analysis – an EIS and/or an EA – to provide the public an opportunity to comment on the forest’s work.
“They could log old growth, roadless areas, lynx critical habitat and or grizzly bear habitat,” Garrity said. “We generally don't know because they are violating the whole purpose of NEPA which is look before you leap.”
Alliance for the Wild Rockies is a frequent challenger of Forest Service projects, working through the NEPA process.
The Forest Service has not yet identified the areas for treatment. This will happen through an assessment process with the goal of minimizing “undesirable effects.” Daley said any projects likely wouldn’t begin until spring 2022 to allow time for the assessments.
Environmentalist George Wuerthner said he appreciates the Forest Service recognizing the ecological value of the six identified ecotones, but the proposals are “so broad that any specific objection or support would have to be based on the specifics of the proposal.”
He said work on aspen regeneration would be better served by the agency removing livestock grazing in the summer and allowing high severity fires. Likewise, he said livestock grazing and roads have the biggest impacts on riparian areas. Using logging as a treatment option could lead to weed infestation, as well as open up the forest to drying winds that promotes wildland fire spread, Wuerthner added.
The Forest Service touts the projects as improving wildlife and plant habitat while increasing the forest’s resiliency to wildfire. Reducing wildfire risk has been a high-profile and political topic over the past decade as wildland fires have increased in size and severity across the West.
The Custer Gallatin National Forest’s decision memo and other documents related to the ecotone projects can be read online at https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=56145.
Daley encouraged anyone interested in the work to follow the forest on Facebook and to check out the agency’s website to find out about upcoming projects.