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Home Wild Word Opportunities for Improvement on the Custer Gallatin
Pine Creek Lake. Photo by Walker Stole
Jul 28 2020

Opportunities for Improvement on the Custer Gallatin

We want to see the Forest Service make these changes in the final forest plan

On July 9, the Forest Service released the draft final plan for the Custer Gallatin National Forest – the second-to-last step in the long process of deciding how it will manage the 3.2-million-acre forest for decades.

While we were happy with many outcomes in the final draft, we strongly object to others. 

Those who commented on earlier drafts of the plan now have until Sept. 8 to file objections to the final plan for the Forest to consider as it makes its ultimate decision.

We’ve streamlined the objections process by creating a template that allows you to personalize your objection. You will have a chance to review and edit the comment at the end before submitting. 

You can submit your objections here. 

  • If you previously commented: if you submitted a comment during the scoping process of the forest plan revision in 2018 or on the draft plan in the spring of 2019, then you have “standing” to submit an objection, and the Forest Service is obligated to consider it.
  • If you did not previously comment: if you didn’t submit a comment, you don’t have standing. You can still submit an objection, but the Forest Service is not required to consider it.

Read on for more detail about what we’d like to see changed in the final draft. 

Plan Details 

Cowboy Heaven 

The Forest Service did not recommend Wilderness designation for Cowboy Heaven, which connects the Spanish Peaks and Bear Trap Canyon units of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. It’s also adjacent to Recommended Wilderness in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest directly to the west. The Forest Service left this area out of the 1983 Lee Metcalf Wilderness legislation, but it remains wild and untrammeled.

By recommending Cowboy Heaven for Wilderness, the Forest Service would be recommending consistent management and consolidating a wild corridor for wildlife away from the busy Gallatin Canyon and Gallatin Valley. Protecting Cowboy Heaven was also at the heart of the Gallatin Forest Partnership Agreement, which was endorsed by over 900 individuals and 100 organizations and businesses, including the Park, Gallatin, and Madison County Commissions.

The Forest Service replaced the Partnership’s recommendation for Wilderness in Cowboy Heaven with a Backcountry Area allocation (BCA), ostensibly to accommodate mountain bike access. However, the Southwest Montana Mountain Bike Association, Livingston Bike Club, and Big Sky Mountain Bike Alliance all helped develop the Partnership’s agreement, which provides mountain bike access along the edge of Cowboy Heaven but calls for Wilderness designation for its core. Not recommending Cowboy Heaven for Wilderness is not a logical management outcome, and we encourage the Forest Service to reconsider

Crazy Mountains

The stunning Crazy Mountains have been historically, culturally, and spiritually significant to the Apsáalooke (Crow Nation) since time immemorial. This island range’s alpine and riparian ecosystems also provide crucial habitat for pikas, wolverines, and other species that are dwindling as a result of climate change. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks also considers the Crazies essential to the future survival of mountain goats. As our climate warms, it’s becoming imperative that we protect high-elevation refuges like the Crazies.

The Forest Service proposes a 10,257-acre Recommended Wilderness area in the southern Crazy Mountains, along with a 28,084-acre backcountry area. While these are notable improvements in protection, they should be expanded eastward. 

While there is no existing mountain bike access in the area, the proposed BCA would be open to mountain biking, so it seems the Forest Service is leaving the door open to expand bike access. The east side of the Crazies should stay primitive and open to foot and stock only, as they currently are. Allowing bikes will change the character of these unique alpine ecosystems and invite conflict. Accordingly, the Forest Service should amend the BCA to be both non-motorized and non-mechanized. 

Chalk Buttes

The Chalk Buttes rise abruptly and dramatically from the surrounding prairie. Here, you can find canyons, draws, and meadows full of wildflowers, mosses, ferns, rare rice grasses, and one of the only stands of birch trees this far west. They’re sacred to many Indigenous peoples, particularly to bands of the Great Sioux Nation and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe.

The Chalk Buttes also provide sanctuary for many animal species, including mule deer, mountain lions, black bears, and some of the biggest trophy elk in the state. There are unique hiking opportunities throughout the Buttes. These ecosystems and quiet recreation opportunities deserve to be protected. 

Unfortunately, the Forest Service has recommended a backcountry area designation for the Chalk Buttes. The access road would remain open to motorized vehicles, while the full BCA would be opened to mountain biking. The Chalk Buttes currently have no designated trails, and the topography makes mountain biking nearly impossible. Instead of opening the door to a use that does not and will not exist in the area, the Forest Service should instead update the BCA designation to protect existing primitive recreation and wildlife. 

Pryor Mountains

Like the Crazies, the Pryors are sacred to the Apsáalooke. Three distinct ecoregions converge here: the Middle Rockies, Wyoming Basin, and Northern Great Plains. This confluence has created a biodiversity hotspot, where many plants and animals found nowhere else in Montana (and even the world) thrive, often at the northernmost reaches of their range

The Forest Service is recommending expanding the Lost Water Canyon Recommended Wilderness area to include more of Crooked Creek, and it’s recommending Bear Canyon for Wilderness designation. This is a noteworthy achievement for the many people who have advocated for this unique range over the years. 

However, it is not recommending Big Pryor and Punch Bowl for Wilderness, instead designating them as BCAs open to mechanized and motorized use. This is a missed opportunity to protect four distinct areas of the Pryors, each with their own characteristics and values, and we encourage the Forest Service to recommend wilderness designation for both areas in the final plan. 

Elimination of Recommended Wilderness

The previous Custer and Gallatin forest plans, written before the forests were combined, recommended only six Wilderness areas across the two forests, with a combined acreage of 33,741 acres. Although the new plan recommends some new Wilderness, it proposes eliminating five of the six Recommended Wilderness areas from the previous plans, including the 20,774-acre Lionhead area. 

The Lionhead adjoins the Targhee Creek Recommended Wilderness in Idaho along the Continental Divide. The area protects an important wildlife linkage between Yellowstone National Park and the Centennial Mountains and provides secure habitat for elk, bighorn sheep, wolverines, and grizzly bears. It also offers a stunning backcountry experience and encompasses the only section of the Continental Divide Trail within the Custer Gallatin National Forest. The Forest Service has allowed mountain biking to become established here, and though it states the wilderness character has not changed, it points to this recreational conflict as the reason it is no longer suitable for Recommended Wilderness. 

The Forest Service should retain these existing areas of Recommended Wilderness since the conditions have not changed to make them ineligible for Wilderness. It must not allow Recommended Wilderness protections to be eroded by laissez-faire management. 

Hyalite Canyon 

The Hyalite watershed is a popular recreation destination in all seasons and provides the majority of Bozeman’s municipal water supply. The South Cottonwood trail, characterized by old-growth forest, lush riparian areas, and meadows, is popular with hikers, mountain bikers, and trail runners and connects with Hyalite Canyon. It also connects with Mt. Blackmore, a popular area for backcountry recreation and an iconic Bozeman landmark.

The final forest plan cuts the GFP’s recommended protections for Hyalite in half, notably leaving out both South Cottonwood and Mt. Blackmore. This leaves the area vulnerable to logging, temporary road building, and increased recreational development. The Forest Service should include the GFP’s proposed protections for this area and protect its important wildlife habitat and backcountry recreation opportunities.

Sign up for our virtual comment workshop

If you commented during previous steps in the forest planning process, you can help shape the future of these wild places by submitting your objection now. You can also join us online for a workshop from 6:30 - 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 11 if you'd like to learn more about the objection process and how to write a meaningful objection.

Register for the workshop here. 

If you didn’t previously comment, you can still submit an objection, though the Forest Service isn’t obligated to consider it. All objections are due by September 8. You can also sign up to stay informed about any developments in the Crazy Mountains here.

Please contact either one of us if you have any questions about submitting an objection or the details of what the draft final plan is proposing. Together, we can make a difference in protecting what makes this Forest special.

Aubrey Bertram
Eastern Montana Field Director

Aubrey works with communities to protect eastern Montana’s prairies, badlands, and island mountain ranges. She spends her time skiing, hiking, and running, volunteering with civic organizations in Billings, exploring public lands with her two dogs, and napping on the couch with her two cats..
Email Aubrey


Emily Cleveland
Senior Field Director

Emily works on developing collaborative land management efforts and building grassroots support and partnerships in the Gallatin and Madison Ranges, the Snowcrest Mountains, the Ruby Valley, the Crazies, and the Beaverheads. She enjoys skiing, hiking, biking, camping and exploring new places.
Email Emily