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Lava Lake

The Custer Gallatin National Forest extends from the borders of Yellowstone National Park in the west to South Dakota. A plan that would guide management of the vast ecosystem has been released for public comment. Pictured here is Lava Lake.

With more than 3 million acres spread from the border of Yellowstone National Park eastward across Montana to South Dakota, the Custer Gallatin National Forest requires multi-faceted approaches to managing its diverse ecosystems.

The public again has the opportunity to weigh in on directing that supervision by reading the just-released draft revised land management plan and draft environmental impact statement, listening to one of several podcasts or by attending one of many community meetings and then submitting comments.

The plan is “similar to zoning in a community,” the Forest Service noted in the document, meaning it “does not authorize site-specific prohibitions or activities; rather it establishes overarching direction.”

What’s up?

Five alternatives are proposed, four with slightly different objectives as well as one that’s a no-action alternative. For example, Alternative D recommends more wilderness.

There’s not a big difference between what agency officials see as areas of the forest suitable for logging. The numbers range from more than 665,000 acres under Alternative A (22 percent) to almost 554,000 acres under Alternative D (19 percent).

The agency did not pick a preferred alternative.

“We want to be able to look at that full range of public comments and wrap that into the final plan,” said Mariah Leuschen-Lonergan, a public affairs specialist with the Custer Gallatin National Forest.

Based on public feedback, which must be specific and well argued, forest supervisor Mary Erickson could pick and choose from the variety of objectives to create the final plan, Leuschen-Lonergan said.

“It’s beyond voting,” she said. “People need to dig in deeper about what it is that they like about the alternative,” or don’t like.

“There is no magic answer, but we’re hoping to balance people’s values on the landscape, while maintaining the long-term sustainability of our resources,” Erickson said in the press release.

A representative of the Gallatin Forest Partnership, comprised of conservation and various user groups, was pleased to see the Forest Service had included its recommendations in Alternative C.

“With more and more people getting out to explore the backcountry, we need to ensure we are balancing recreation interests with conservation of the wildlife habitat and wild places that make these mountains so special,” said Hilary Eisen, a Bozeman-based backcountry skier, climber and a GFP member, in a statement.

The Gallatin Forest Partnership agreement "offers the best chance for protecting the Gallatin Range and securing much-needed additions to the Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area in the Madison Range," Emily Cleveland, the Montana Wilderness Association's southwestern Montana field director, said in a statement. "We are also encouraged to see that the Forest Service has included options that would maintain recommended wilderness in the Lionhead and provide new protections for the Crazy Mountains."

MWA's Eastern Montana field director, Aubrey Bertram, supported the Custer Gallatin's "status quo protections for the roadless areas of the Ashland Ranger District, but (we) are disappointed that the draft plan lacks a meaningful range of management options for protecting other wildlands in the eastern half of the national forest, especially in the Pryor Mountains," she said in a press release.  

Economic look

In its press release, forest officials stressed the dollar value and jobs that the revised plan has the potential to add to the area’s economy — 400 new jobs and $20 million in labor income.

Those figures come from economic modeling agency officials did looking at the forest’s prime income drivers: the Stillwater Complex platinum and palladium mines, recreation, grants, grazing in the Ashland and Sioux ranger districts and logging.

“We know that recreation is a huge component on this forest, almost half of the income the forest contributes to the economy,” Leuschen-Lonergan said, in both jobs and labor income.

“Currently the forest supports roughly 5,400 jobs that contribute $232 million in annual labor income to surrounding communities,” according to the press release.

Diverse ecosystem

“Given (its) proximity to Yellowstone National Park and renowned attractions such as the Beartooth Highway and Big Sky Ski Resort, the (Custer Gallatin) national forest is part of an international destination,” the plan noted.

“…Popular species and biological diversity on the forest contributes to the economic sustainability of communities through ecotourism, wildlife viewing, hunting and fishing.

“Recreation opportunities include a network of motorized and nonmotorized roads and trails. Winter recreation includes extensive trail networks for snowmobiling, cross-country and downhill skiing, and snowshoeing.

“The forest contains (more than) 1 million acres of designated wilderness including portions of the Lee Metcalf and Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Areas. Approximately 848,000 acres of the forest are allocated as inventoried roadless areas. Congress also designated portions of the inventoried roadless areas as the 155,000-acre Hyalite Porcupine Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area, and the 37,000-acre Cabin Creek Wildlife and Recreation Area.”

The Custer Gallatin National Forest was formed in 2014 when management was combined to reduce the workforce. That meant stretching oversight of real estate separated by 400 miles. Long before that, each forest wrote its own management plan in the late 1980s. So much has changed since then that revisions are long overdue. The new plan is meant to last about 10 to 15 years but will be adaptive to allow change so it could extend longer.

The current planning process began in 2016 and has included 80 public meetings.

Written and electronic comments will be accepted for 90 days after publication of the Notice of Availability in the Federal Register. All project documents, including instructions on how to comment, are on the Forest Plan Revision website.

Electronic comments can be sent to: https://cara.ecosystem-management.org/Public/CommentInput?project=50185 Comments delivered by mail can be sent to the Custer Gallatin National Forest Supervisor’s Office, 10 East Babcock, Bozeman, MT 59715.

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