Feature photo of the Beartooth Highway by Mackenzie Lisac.

Custer Gallatin National Forest Plan: Comment by June 5 or forever hold your peace

Custer Gallatin National Forest Land. Source: USDA

The Custer Gallatin National Forest stretches from Camp Crook, South Dakota to West Yellowstone, Montana. Folks across the region hunt, hike, camp, picnic, snowmobile, bike, off-road and bird-watch on these public lands. Some of us make a living on them, and others spend time there with our families away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

It truly is “The Land of Many Uses,” one of the U.S. Forest Service mottos. The diversity in user groups complements the diverse landscapes across the Custer Gallatin’s 3.1 million acres. The mesas and badlands of the Slim Buttes, the rolling hills of Long Pines and the deep canyons of the Pryor Mountains contrast with the vast, surrounding plains. The pristine lakes of the Beartooths, the granite peaks of the Absarokas and Crazies, and the thick forests of the Gallatin and Madison Ranges draw people from around the world.

The Custer Gallatin is particularly diverse due to a 2014 merger of the Custer National Forest with the Gallatin National Forest. Since the consolidation, the Forest Service (USFS) still manages the entire Custer Gallatin under one umbrella forest management plan that dates back to the late 1980s.  

But that’s about to change.

Since 2016, the folks in the USFS have been revising the Custer Gallatin forest plan. A forest plan sets the guidelines and standards for the future management and use of a forest. It doesn’t authorize specific projects, award permits or mandate travel restrictions. Rather, the USFS decides on the priorities the agency will uphold across public lands for the next 20 to 30 years.

The forest plan is a big deal, but planners are drawing to the end of the long process.

The forest plan revision team welcomed and encouraged public input the past three years. Since it announced the revision in 2016, the group held dozens of public meetings, webinars and workshops to inform the public and collect feedback. The USFS received thousands of comments about their findings, which they incorporated into their current proposals.

In February 2019, Custer Gallatin National Forest released all 1,724 pages of the Draft Revised Forest Plan and the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. Now, that is likely the most bureaucratic series of words you’ve read in a while, but stick with us because this is one of the last steps before the final plan. It’s also one of the last chances that you may have to make your voice heard about the public lands in your backyard.

In this draft plan, there are five alternative plans for the future of the Custer Gallatin. Every alternative includes certain elements: the USFS has a legal obligation to maintain clean air and clean water, allow reasonable access for mineral developments for private mineral rights, manage for lynx and grizzly bears, and adhere to the principles of multiple use. Apart from those generalities, each of the proposed alternatives is unique.

Forest Service employees did not give preference to one alternative over another, which is why public feedback is so important. They held 10 public meetings across the region to offer information. Currently, stakeholders and nonprofits are busy rallying their troops to compile comments that support certain plans. Here’s a brief rundown of the proposed alternatives:


Alternative A – This plan maintains the status quo. It continues the current Custer Gallatin Forest Plan that the USFS developed in the late 1980s and amended after the two forests consolidated in 2014.

  • Existing motorized and mechanized means of transportation could continue as is.
  • 33,741 acres of recommended wilderness and 38,414 acres of backcountry area
  • Continue management to protect the 11 eligible wild and scenic rivers.
  • There is no specific plan for bison management or for the prevention of disease transmission to bighorn sheep.
  • 665,247 acres of forest suitable for timber production and 523,883 acres of forest suitable for other forms of timber harvest such as fuels reduction or habitat enhancement

Alternative B – This plan closely reflects the USFS’s first revised plan proposed in January 2018. The revision team made slight modifications based on public and internal comments.

  • Existing motorized and mechanized transport and use of existing commercial communication facilities could continue in recommended wilderness areas. However, existing or new use of forest service cabins, new recreation events like races, and new commercial communication facilities would not be allowed in recommended wilderness areas.
  • 113,952 acres of recommended wilderness, 125,090 acres of backcountry area, and 178,094 acres with a recreation emphasis
  • 102,945 acres allocated to the Stillwater Complex for minerals
  • Permitted use of domestic sheep or goats for grazing or outfitting would not be allowed in the Pryor Mountains, the Absaroka Beartooth Mountains, the Madisons, the Gallatins or the Henrys Lake area. However, sheep or goats could be used in certain cases for weed control.
  • 582,338 acres of forest suitable for timber production and 592,261 acres of forest suitable for other forms of timber harvest such as fuels reduction or habitat enhancement

To read more about the Gallatin Forest Partnership, click HERE.

Alternative C – This plan closely reflects the work of the Gallatin Forest Partnership, a diverse group of stakeholders such as mountain bike groups, sportsmen, local businesses and environmental nonprofits. The stakeholders discovered shared values, and developed a plan that they hope will balance the needs of the land, water, wildlife and community.

  • Motorized and mechanized travel, use of existing or new commercial communication facilities and new recreation events would not be allowed in recommended wilderness areas. The public will still have access to forest service cabins in recommended wilderness.
  • 146,555 acres of recommended wilderness, 252,896 acres of backcountry areas, and 208,718 acres with recreation emphasis.
  • 102,945 acres allocated to the Stillwater Complex
  • Permitted use of domestic sheep or goats for grazing or outfitting would not be allowed in the Pryor Mountains, the Absaroka Beartooth Mountains, the Madisons, the Gallatins or the Henrys Lake area. However, some could be used in certain cases for weed control.
  • 570,146 acres of forest suitable for timber production and 563,839 acres of forest suitable for other forms of timber harvest such as fuels reduction or habitat enhancement

Alternative D – This plan puts an emphasis on restoration, resource enhancement and wilderness. It puts less emphasis on road and trail maintenance and timber production.

  • Motorized and mechanized travel, use of existing or new commercial communications facilities, use of cabins as recreation rentals and new recreation events would not be allowed in recommended wilderness areas.
  • 711,425 acres of recommended wilderness, 5,937 acres of backcountry areas, and 34,649 acres with recreation emphasis.
  • Zero acres allocated to the Stillwater Complex for minerals, yet mining would continue
  • Permitted use of domestic sheep or goals for grazing, outfitting, or weed control would not be allowed anywhere across the forest.
  • 553,950 acres of forest suitable for timber production and 246,127 acres of forest suitable for other forms of timber harvest such as fuels reduction or habitat enhancement

Alternative E – This plan emphasizes human use of the Custer Gallatin. It increases the amount of land available for timber production and motorized and mechanized use.

  • Motorized and mechanized travel could expand under this plan
  • Zero acres of recommended wilderness, 173,266 acres of backcountry areas, and 213,259 acres with recreation emphasis.
  • 102,945 acres allocated to the Stillwater Complex for minerals.
  • Permitted use of domestic sheep or goals for grazing, outfitting, or weed control would be assessed in specific situations.
  • 604,502 acres of forest suitable for timber production and 608,056 acres of forest suitable for other forms of timber harvest such as fuels reduction or habitat enhancement

Your Voice Matters

Most Montanans hold strong opinions about how our federal public lands should be managed.  The Forest Service wants to hear your thoughts on the potential plan that will guide the Custer Gallatin for decades to come. However, the Forest Service specifies the following guidelines for giving feedback:

  • When commenting, don’t simply vote for or against a particular alternative.
  • The most helpful comments are reflective and thoughtful. They provide rationale and reasoning behind them, and they keep in mind the multiple uses the Forest Service must manage.
  • If you like a particular alternative, talk about the specific parts you like.
  • If you don’t like a particular part of a plan, suggest another solution.
  • If you have additional information about a particular area that you know well, let them know.
  • If you have scientific information, cite the source and connect it to the relevant topic.
  • Include your name and contact information, as all comments are part of the public record.

Ultimately, the Custer Gallatin Forest Supervisor Mary Erickson will review all public comments and make a final recommendation by spring, 2020. It is her prerogative to glean bits and pieces from each alternative to compile a final report. Then the public will have 90 days to submit objections. By mid 2020, the Custer Gallatin National Forest will officially have a new forest plan that will dictate the future of the public lands.

Urgent Note: if you do not formally comment now, you will not be eligible to file objections to the final plan. The Forest Service reiterated this important information during the most recent round of public forums. The policy is hidden deep in the multiple links of the Forest Plan Revision website. We encourage folks to spread the word. We at Prairie Populist believe in the democratic process. We believe people’s voices should be heard, so take the time to comment now before it’s too late.

Comments due June 5, 2019

To comment, click this link. Digital comments are preferable, but hand-written comments can also be submitted to:

Custer Gallatin National Forest
Attn: Forest Plan Revision Team
P.O. Box 130
10 E Babcock
Bozeman, MT 59771

To learn more specifics, feel free to skim through the 1,724 pages of the draft revised forest plan and the draft environmental impact statement found here.

-Amanda Garant

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