By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor

BIG SKY – With 3.1 million visitors annually, the Custer Gallatin National Forest is the ninth most-visited national forest in the United States.

Covering more than 4,800-square miles, it’s also among the most ecologically diverse forests, encompassing both Montana’s highest mountain, Granite Peak, and the rolling grasslands of western South Dakota.

Midway through a four-year-long forest plan revision, Forest Service personnel are finding that adaptability is emerging as a repeated theme among residents who live near the Custer Gallatin, which includes pockets of land west of Bozeman as well as open prairie in eastern Montana.

Over the course of eight public meetings and four webinars held across the forest during the month of September, the Forest Service solicited comments from the public to gauge community objectives and desires. Those comments will help shape the revision, which should be presented in draft form in early 2018.

Forest Service spokeswoman Mariah Leuschen-Lonergan said topics have varied some based on location. Grazing, she said, was very important on the east side of the forest. “Over here, it’s a lot more recreation-focused conservation,” she added.

“One of the things we hear really across the forest is having the new plan be adaptable and flexible,” Leuschen-Lonergan said. “The plan is meant to be a 10- to 15-year plan, but may extend well beyond that timeframe and we do not know all the emerging technologies and changes that may come between now and then.”

Leuschen-Lonergan said one way to address this might be to use draft language that specifically mentions this need for adaptability. She gave one example of some draft language pertaining to recreation, saying that the plan could specify that “recreation opportunities are adaptable to changing trends or desired recreation opportunities and increasing demands and use of the forest.”

Another common trend she’s hearing pertains to concerns over population increases in areas like Bozeman, West Yellowstone, Gardiner and Red Lodge. Leuschen-Lonergan said people have expressed the desire that the new plan addresses the agency’s ability to serve the public interest with infrastructure while also protecting the forest resources.

“[Population growth] is pretty intertwined with many recreational uses,” Leuschen-Lonergan said. This covers facilities and developed recreation sites. She went on to explain that desired conditions, or the overarching vision for the forest plan, could include developing areas that can accommodate new levels of recreational use. With this approach, the Forest Service could concentrate use along some heavily traveled corridors and adapt existing facilities for future goals or changing visitor demands.

Steve Johnson, a Big Sky resident who sits on several local planning boards, has attended some of the revision plan meetings. He pointed out in an interview that Big Sky is surrounded by national forest, so things like trail access, trail designations, closures and wildlife impacts are important concerns. “Big Sky has an interest in those,” Johnson said. “Big Sky needs to weigh in on that.”

As part of the new forest plan, the Forest Service must consider every stream that has potential for wild and scenic designation and every possible wilderness tract, and identify if it is suitable for designation or not. Johnson specifically mentioned the need to consider the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area, 155 acres of forest protected in 1977 as a wilderness study area but not a fully designated wilderness area.

In 2014, the Custer and Gallatin national forests were consolidated into the single Custer Gallatin National Forest. However, the forest has continued to be managed under forest plans created in 1986 and 1987. “Since ’86 and ’87 a lot has changed,” Leuschen-Lonergan said.

“This hasn’t been done for 30 years,” Johnson said, referring to the forest plan revision. “It’s likely that it will not be done again for 30 years, so it’s important this is done right.”

In January 2016 the Forest Service began the four-year process of revising the Custer Gallatin National Forest Plan. The meetings in September were the fourth round of public meetings held so far. Currently, the Forest Service is compiling information gathered at the September meetings and plans to release a draft of the proposed action closer to the new year, with public commentary and meetings to follow.

To track the progress of the Custer Gallatin National Forest plan revision, visit www.fs.usda.gov/detail/custergallatin/landmanagement/planning/. General feedback and comments can be made by emailing cgplanrevision@fs.fed.us.