Logging, bison management and carbon sequestration are just some of the diverse items outlined in the hundreds of pages that make up the revised Custer Gallatin National Forest plan, which was released to the public last week for a comment period that extends to March 5.
Public meetings are planned across the region to discuss the document, which hasn’t been updated since the 1980s and has been two years in the making.
A lot has changed in the 30 years since the forests each crafted their own plans: The two national forests have been combined administratively to be managed as a single 3 million-acre forest, new Forest Service planning regulations, laws and policies have been adopted, demographics have shifted and “new threats” have emerged that are not addressed in the current plans. Once completed, the plan will guide forest management for 10 to 15 years.
“The plan is that higher level, overarching guidance,” said the agency’s Mariah Leuschen-Lonergan. “It deals with broader statements about where we’d like to see the forest go, desired conditions. It’s more descriptive.”
“The revision doesn’t get into certain trails, but it does look at the recreation spectrum in a broader sense,” she added. “The travel plan is a separate document, and we won’t be getting into that.”
Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman, is a member of a working group that has helped guide the Forest Service’s development of the document. He said in an email that he has been “paying specific attention to the Specialist Reports which the (Forest Service) uses to justify their decision. Most of these are science-based, or should be, but what I am finding of concern is the (agency) seems to be using a lot of models and studies, some of which are from areas in the Great Plains from North Dakota to Texas. Some are as much as 15 years old, too.
"So far I haven't found much information based on ground truth and true, current conditions on the ground. This is typical as the Forest Service is no longer an agency with personnel on the ground and in the forest. Their job is to manage the forest from an office far removed from the forest they are charged to manage.”
Erica Lighthiser of the Park County Environmental Council, which along with other groups has been fighting to keep miners off federal lands in the Livingston area, said her group appreciates “the Forest Service's work to meaningfully engage local communities to make this process open and transparent. Park County residents care deeply about public lands, and PCEC encourages everyone to learn more and comment.”
Lumber production is likely to be one of the scrutinized areas of the plan, since federal timber helps feed local sawmills. According to the plan 573,503 acres of the forest are suited for timber production.
But actually creating timber sales and successfully seeing them to conclusion seems somewhat uncertain. “Neither the projected wood sale quantity nor the projected timber sale quantity serve as management targets or as limitations on harvest,” the plan states. “Calculation of these volume estimates are sensitive to a number of important assumptions including future budget trends, future markets for timber products, efficiency in planning and implementation, and the timing and locations of large disturbance events.”
With so many unknowns, the forest set a projected wood sale quantity ranging from about 2.55 to 4.56 million cubic feet a year in the first decade of the plan period (14.2 to 25.3 million board feet). That may sound like a lot, but R-Y Timber, which has sawmills in Livingston and Townsend, boasts an annual average production volume of 162 million board feet.
Yet conservationists see the forest’s proposal as too generous.
“The proposal makes subsidized logging a priority above all other multiple uses such as clean water, hunting, fishing and habitat for sustainable populations of native species,” said Michael Garrity of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “Teddy Roosevelt must be rolling over in his grave. He created national forests to protect them from corporate exploitation. This draft of the revised forest plan makes corporate exploitation of our forests the goal of the Custer Gallatin National Forest plan.”
The document also includes management direction for native bison, an animal more typically associated with Yellowstone National Park. In the past 30 years, though, state, federal and tribal leaders have cooperated on management plans that allow the large animals to roam a bit more freely outside of the park in portions of Montana that include national forest lands.
With that background the agency has set a goal to “expand the science of bison ecology, improve social tolerance for the species on public land, and cooperatively develop adaptive strategies to manage bison and their habitats to facilitate natural movement of bison into suitable habitats within state-approved bison tolerance zones.”
The forest has also pledged not to reduce the percent of secure habitat in each grizzly bear management sub-unit below 1998 baseline levels inside the Primary Conservation Area. Yellowstone-area grizzly bears have been proposed for removal from the protection of the Endangered Species Act.
To protect wild bighorn sheep, no new permitted grazing by domestic sheep or goats will be authorized within 9 air miles of bighorn sheep herd areas.
Carbon sequestration — "the process by which atmospheric carbon dioxide is taken up by trees, grasses, and other plants through photosynthesis and stored as carbon in biomass and soils" — is one recognition that the forest is now dealing with a changing climate.
Healthy forests can help "offset sources of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, such as deforestation, forest fires, and fossil fuel emissions," the plan states.
"Planting new trees and improving forest health through thinning and prescribed burning are some of the ways to increase forest carbon in the long run. Harvesting and regenerating forests can also result in net carbon sequestration in wood products and new forest growth."
Some of the interesting numbers gleaned from the proposed plan include:
More than 4,500 archaeological and historic sites and traditional cultural properties are recorded on the forest. Of these recorded sites, 357 are considered priority assets. “Priority assets” is a special Forest Service category that demonstrate a distinct value to the forest and are, or should be actively maintained.
Primary rangelands open to grazing occur on about 22 percent of the forest with 216 active allotments and 199 permittees.
There are 1,450 miles of roads across the forest, including 85 road bridges.
The Custer Gallatin manages a 2,850-mile summer and winter trail system including 80 trail bridges.
Approximately 175 outfitter and guide permittees operate on the forest. Six operators on the Ashland and Sioux Districts provide hunting services. The remaining 169 operators provide a wide range of services. Horseback trail rides, rafting and boating are the activities with the most authorized days and account for more than 60,000 user days.
About 950 miles of trail are located in the forest’s two designated wilderness areas, with the bulk of those miles in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. The AB and Lee Metcalf wildernesses comprise more than 1 million acres, which is nearly 35 percent of the forest.
More than 840,000 acres of the forest are inventoried roadless areas, which is about 28 percent of the forest.