Newspaper Opinion: Our Last, Best Chance to Protect the Gallatins

The following was first published in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle as a guest opinion by GYC Executive Director Caroline Byrd, Montana Wilderness Association Executive Director Ben Gabriel, and The Wilderness Society’s Montana State Director Scott Brennan.

June 6 is a date looming large for those who prize the Gallatin Range. It’s the last day the public can submit comments on how the U.S. Forest Service should manage the Custer Gallatin National Forest, including the Gallatins, for the next 20 to 30 years.

No surprise then that emotions among those with a vested interest in the Gallatins have been running high over the last several weeks. Nothing less than the fate of our beloved backyard mountains – and their wildlife, waters, and recreational opportunities – is at stake.

On a mountain ridgeline in the Custer Gallatin National Forest in Montana. (Photo Louise Johns.)

On a mountain ridgeline in the Custer Gallatin National Forest in Montana. (Photo Louise Johns.)

Our three organizations have been working on a solution for permanent protection of the Gallatins for decades in the face of some daunting challenges. The Forest Service didn’t recommend a single acre in the range for wilderness protection in the last forest plan, created in 1987. Since then, mountain biking, dirt bike riding, and snowmobiling have become established in certain parts of the range, including within parts of the wilderness study area (WSA). With tens of thousands of people moving to the Bozeman area every year, we can expect more people recreating in the Gallatins over the coming decades.

Given this tough reality, it became clear to us years ago that our best – and likely last – chance of achieving substantive protection for the Gallatins would occur by joining with other interests and working out an agreement that each interest could feel good about. With many stakeholders endorsing one proposal for the Gallatins, we could reasonably expect the Forest Service to consider incorporating it into the Custer Gallatin Forest plan.

That’s why we joined the Gallatin Forest Partnership (GFP), a coalition representing hunters, anglers, conservationists, outfitters, backcountry horsemen and women, mountain bikers, backcountry skiers, business owners, and others.

The GFP has agreed to a proposal that recommends nearly 125,000 acres for wilderness in the Madison and Gallatin ranges. This includes more than 100,000 acres in the Gallatins, from Hyalite Lake to Yellowstone, as well as 22,000 acres in the Cowboy Heaven and Taylor-Hilgard areas of the Madisons.

The GFP agreement nearly doubles the number of acres that would have been designated as wilderness in a bill that Congress passed in 1988 (but was pocket vetoed by President Reagan).

The agreement also sets aside two new wildlife management areas in the Porcupine Buffalo Horn and West Pine area, preventing any kind of development that would fragment habitat and deplete wildlife populations.

Thankfully, alternative C in the current draft of the forest plan largely reflects the GFP agreement. Moreover, over 700 people have endorsed the agreement, as have the Gallatin County Commission, Mystery Ranch, Simms, Big Sky Chamber of Commerce, Big Sky Mountain Resort, Trout Unlimited and more than 60 other local businesses and organizations.

Mountain biking in the Custer Gallatin National Forest in Montana. (Photo Louise Johns.)

Mountain biking in the Custer Gallatin National Forest in Montana. (Photo Louise Johns.)

If we don’t achieve protection for the Gallatins in the forest plan, we maybe never will. That would mean losing what we love about this range – the wilderness that supports grizzlies, wolverines, elk, and other species that roam the mountains, as well as the cold, clear, and clean streams that support some of the best fishing in the world and serve as the source of our drinking water.

Because of the broad-based support it has garnered, the GFP agreement stands as our last, best chance to permanently protect the Gallatins. It’s the sort of proposal that could lead to legislation finally designating wilderness in the range and serve as a balanced, bipartisan model for resolving other wilderness study areas throughout the state.

Please join our effort to protect the Gallatins by visiting our action center and telling the Forest Service, before June 6, that you support the Gallatin Forest Partnership agreement.