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Op-ed: The next conservation leap forward for Gallatin Range

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By Bob Ekey, Eva Patten, Michael Scott and Ed Lewis

The Gallatin Range’s gently rolling crestline may not be as formidable as the neighboring Absaroka or Madison Ranges. But after four decades, charting a path for the range’s management remains challenging.

Luckily, the Custer Gallatin National Forest Plan Revision presents us an opportunity, working together, to shape the future of this much-loved mountain range with a proposal that deserves everyone’s support: the Gallatin Forest Partnership’s agreement.

The Gallatin Range is the only mountain range adjacent to Yellowstone National Park without a permanent designation to protect significant wildlife and wilderness values, including habitat for elk, bighorn sheep, grizzly bears and mountain goats. The range provides almost 80 percent of Bozeman’s drinking water and a wide array of recreational opportunities that permanent protection would enhance.

For decades, citizens have worked to remove barriers to achieving permanent protection.

Initially, significant checkerboarded public and private lands throughout the Gallatin Range, including the wildlife-rich Porcupine and Buffalo Horn drainages, was a barrier. Plum Creek Timber Company, owner of the private lands, planned to log the area, but instead sold to Tim Blixseth. Suddenly, real estate development eclipsed logging as a major threat.

Conservationists, hunting groups and neighbors worked with these landowners, the U.S. Forest Service and Congressional delegation on complicated land exchanges to eliminate the checkerboard and bring the entire Gallatin Range into public ownership. Focusing on solutions, this cleared the way for permanent protection.

Growing recreation pressure throughout the Gallatin Range has also been a barrier. After Congress designated the heart of the range as a Wilderness Study Area in 1977, the Forest Service allowed motorized recreation to expand throughout the range, in conflict with Congress’ direction to maintain the wild character that existed in 1977. After years of litigation, the Forest Service implemented the current travel management plan for the WSA 10 years ago, creating the system of access for motorized and non-motorized recreation that we experience today.

Since then, many have tried to reach agreement on the future of the Gallatin Range. One effort—the Gallatin Forest Partnership—developed a proposal supported by hikers, wilderness advocates, mountain bike groups, backcountry horsemen and many others.

We proudly join in supporting the Gallatin Forest Partnership Agreement.   

The Partnership proposes 250,000 acres of protective designations in the Gallatin and Madison Ranges to conserve the area’s wild backcountry, irreplaceable wildlife habitat and clean water. Specifically, the agreement recommends:

  • New Wilderness designations from the boundary of Yellowstone Park, north to Hyalite Peak as well as two additions to the Lee Metcalf Wilderness.
  • A wildlife management area in the Porcupine-Buffalo Horn area that maintains existing recreation access while preventing new road building and development activities.
  • A watershed protection and recreation area encompassing Hyalite, Sourdough and South Cottonwood drainages, that also maintains existing recreation access and focuses new trail development in lower Hyalite outside of the WSA.
  • A second wildlife management area in the northeast corner of the range that limits development and provides new mountain bike access near Livingston in a non-motorized area.

This proposal advances conservation in the Gallatin Range. When adopted, the agreement prohibits development and new road building in all designated areas while limiting the overall human footprint, including new trails, to what’s on the ground today. By limiting future development, the agreement prevents habitat fragmentation and protects important wildlife corridors for animals moving beyond Yellowstone.

Many people, including us, envision wilderness designation for the heart of the Gallatin Range. The partnership’s agreement delivers. It recommends 102,000 acres of wilderness, including lower elevation habitats in Big Creek, Rock Creek, and Tom Miner, all of which provide important grizzly bear habitat.

The GFP agreement builds on decades of work to safeguard a wild Gallatin Range for future generations and is our best opportunity to permanently protect the range.

Join us in supporting the Gallatin Forest Partnership by endorsing the agreement at gallatinpartners.org.

Bob Ekey, Eva Patten, Ed Lewis and Michael Scott are all long time Montana conservation leaders, having worked with many area conservation groups as staff, boards of directors and members including The Wilderness Society, Greater Yellowstone Coalition and Montana Wilderness Association.

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