Decisions and designations

Looking at wilderness in the Gallatin Range
"Its been a very long and controversial story for the Gallatin. There’s so much history there and it really frames the conversation today,” Cleveland, SW Montana Field Director for MWA

Montanans have an affinity to the land they live on whether they use it for purpose, play, or employment. As the population grows, people venture further into the landscape, looking for something untouched.  The bear population  has increased over the years, but their food supply changes, and changes to the Endangered Species Act are being considered by the Trump Administration. What does this mean for local wilderness and wildlife? Stay tuned for the next development in this series.

Wilderness has been a controversial topic since humans had a concept of landownership, and that conversation shows no signs of stopping. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) is one of the last remaining intact, temperate climate zones in the world. “It’s pretty amazing we have one of those in our backyard,” Emily Cleveland, Southwest Montana Field Director for the Montana Wilderness Association (MWA), said. Extending from Wyoming to Yellowstone National Park (YNP), the GYE encompasses the Gallatin Range, a landscape near and dear to many hearts in this county. 

The Gallatin Range runs north of YNP and up to Hyalite in Bozeman. None of this mountain range has an official wilderness designation, unique here as it is the only range extending out of YNP without that designation. Interests between those wanting permanent, official wilderness status and those craving more economic or recreational opportunities tend to be at odds.

Anyone living around Gallatin County has seen the population explode over the years. As new adventurers seek to go deeper into this unprotected territory, the wilderness character is challenged. To understand this sliding scale, we must look at two different laws outlining the scope of this problem. 

The Wilderness Act of 1964 was signed into law by former president Lyndon B. Johnson. Even five decades ago people understood the solitary character of the wilderness would be threatened by an ever-expanding population. “The Act recognized the value of preserving, ‘an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain,’” the United States Department of Justice website explained.

9.1 million acres of land were designated as wilderness with the hope of keeping it “untrammeled” for later generations. This act also laid out a process for future designations which would give federal agencies, like the United States Forest Service (USFS), the ability to identify potential wilderness areas and recommend them to Congress, finishing with an official signature from the sitting president. Congress continues to have the power to designate or remove wilderness protection today.

Next, the Montana Wilderness Study Act, public law 95-150, advocated by Montana state Sen. Lee Metcalf in 1977. Sen. Metcalf created nine Wilderness Study Areas (WSA) in the Gallatin Range as a way to combat any degradation of the land that had no permanent wilderness protection, Cleveland explained. WSA’s untamed character can be improved, but not destroyed, and used for future planning of eventual wilderness in the study areas. The decision on what to do with the resulting WSAs was supposed to be finalized five years after the passing of the law. “Its been closer to 40 at this point,” Cleveland said, the WSAs remaining in limbo.

The Gallatin Range is located within the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn (HPBH) WSA, which currently protects the range. Forest Service has been unable to recommend wilderness designation at this point because of private land checkered throughout.

“Its been a very long and controversial story for the Gallatin. There’s so much history there and it really frames the conversation today,” Cleveland said.

The history of checkerboarding has an important timeline to consider, outlined in a recent blog by Cleveland entitled, “The Last Best Chance for the Gallatin Range,” beginning in 1870 with the Northern Pacific Railroad Act. This act allowed private ownership of land through the Gallatin Range to prosper, encouraging railroad expansion via timber and mining resources. In 1872, YNP was designated the country’s first national park, promoting the idea of saving land for future generations even before the turn of the 20th century.

Land was being pulled on by private, public and timber interests in the private sectors from every direction. “Forest Service in reports to Congress acknowledged wilderness character, but because of the checkerboard they couldn’t recommend it for wilderness,” Joe Josephson, Senior Montana Conservation Associate with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, said.

Aiding the designation process by exchanging land to consolidate ownership, private and public parties moved forward. In 1988, a new Montana Wilderness Act, which would designate large parts of the WSAs as wilderness, made it all the way through Congress with USFS approval. The bill was pocket vetoed by President Ronald Reagan.

Despite this setback, efforts continued.

Two Gallatin Land Exchange Bills, one in 1993 and one in 1998, involved transferring privately owned railroad land to USFS. This saw the consolidation of the Gallatin Range as Forest Service land and private land was secured in Big Sky in exchange. “The whole goal of that was to eliminate that barrier of the checkerboard to potential wilderness designation,” Josephson said.

It seemed like everything was close to agreement, but then conflicts concerning trail use arose. The Gallatin National Forest released its Travel Management Plan that defined who could use trails when and where in 2006. MWA sued the Forest Service for allowing mountain bikes and motor vehicles in areas the Montana Wilderness Study Act did not permit, Josephson said. The MWA won and the Forest Service created interim orders, which broke trail use up into sections for different users in the summer and winter. This is the blue print for the trail system we currently use, Josephson explained.

“We can go mountain biking and we can go snowmobiling in a lot of places, but you can’t have a wilderness experience in a lot of places,” Cleveland said.

The Forest Service is working on a Custer/Gallatin National Forest Revision Plan, which would include a bigger zoning proposal of the whole forest, Josephson explained. With this strategy, the Forest Service may have the capability to recommend the Gallatin Range as wilderness.

“The forest will have one unified plan, instead of the two existing. The revised plan will have an integrated focus on ecological, social and economic sustainability and will be updated for current conditions, public values and using current science. The revised plan will be outcome-based; current plans were more output based,” Marna Daley, public affairs officer for the Custer Gallatin National Forest, described.

  “Its been some hard-earned protections and changes that have gone on over the years,” Josephson said. Protections, recommendations and acts of Congress, exemplified by the process leading to Reagan’s pocket veto, remain in a delicate balance.

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