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Green Rebuttal: Some Advocates Say Gallatin Forest Partnership Plan Sells Mountains, Wildlife Short

Joe Scalia says conservationists should rally around better vision for Gallatins that holds Forest Service's feet to the fire and results in more Wilderness

From the top of Mount Holmes in Yellowstone National Park, the wild Gallatins stretch northward past Big Sky and Paradise Valley all the way toward Bozeman's backyard.  Mt. Holmes represents the range's southern end. Photo courtesy NPS
From the top of Mount Holmes in Yellowstone National Park, the wild Gallatins stretch northward past Big Sky and Paradise Valley all the way toward Bozeman's backyard. Mt. Holmes represents the range's southern end. Photo courtesy NPS
The recent guest essay in Mountain Journal by members of the Gallatin Forest Partnership Steering Committee warrants a swift response and correction of errors in fact.  

I am grateful that Mountain Journal is allowing me to respond at length on behalf of the organization I serve as president, the Gallatin Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance.  In fact, we propose and welcome having a moderated public discussion with authors of that essay and with leaders of the Custer Gallatin National Forest about the future of the Gallatin Range. 

The Gallatin Forest Partnership insinuates, wrongly, that any entity which does not agree with its position is an outlier. Without mentioning us by name, the partnership claims that citizen groups like the Gallatin Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance, which among its supporters has centuries’ worth of experience in achieving successful citizen-driven conservation, is unwilling to work with others, and exists “at the margins” of social discourse and community. 

Such characterizations are not only offensive and unnecessarily inflammatory in their misrepresentation, but indeed it’s a case of trying to divert attention away from weaknesses in their argument.  More importantly, they are dangerous depictions in terms of any true democratic undertaking, as something as important as deciding the fate of a mountain range should me. And it is meant to marginalize citizen advocates and scientists who are forcing the Custer Gallatin National Forest to do its job better on behalf of the American public for generations now and in the future.

This likely is our only chance and do we think this issue warrants using the best science and holding the Forest Service to account? Those who favor the best conservation outcome for a rare piece of wild America should expect nothing less. 

I have written about this previously and so have others, including writer Todd Burritt. View the video at the bottom of this rebuttal featuring diverse voices including Burritt, Anne Milbrooke, Nancy Ostlie, George Wuerthner, Phil Knight,  Seth Mangini, Marilyn Olsen and Howie Wolke, Dr. David J. Mattson and Louisa Willcox. In making the case for more robust and permanent habitat protection, we want the Gallatin Forest Partnership and the Custer Gallatin Forest to prominently consider the health of the Gallatin's extraordinary wildlife and land character on an equal plane with the partnership’s own prevailing focus on accommodating human exploitation.
White line north of Yellowstone, outside park boundary, illustrates, generally speaking, how much land is potentially available for Wilderness designation in the Gallatin Mountains.
White line north of Yellowstone, outside park boundary, illustrates, generally speaking, how much land is potentially available for Wilderness designation in the Gallatin Mountains.
The Gallatin Forest Partnership, with what I fear has already secured the Forest Service’s willing complicity, has tried to justify exclusion of wildlife conservation advocates from the so-called “community solution,” and stifled public dialogue about fundamental or seemingly incommensurable differences.  I speak with informed perspective. One of the organizations involved with the Gallatin Forest Partnership is the Montana Wilderness Association, of which I was a long-time member and served not long ago as its elected statewide board president.

Conservationists can and must do better for protecting the character of the wild Gallatins than the plan crafted by the Gallatin Forest Partnership. It has been big on marketing but evasive when it comes to answering legitimate scrutiny. Rather than take my word for it, or to blindly accept what the partnership claims as fact, I encourage readers here to do their own investigation and come to their own conclusions about what is best for the wild character of these prominent mountains.

While the Gallatin Forest Partnership has skillfully painted itself as an allegedly far-sighted and ethical keeper of the riches of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and of ecologically sensitive areas of the Gallatin Range, so very much is left out of the story it has spun.  And while I do not wish to be disrespectful to its proponents and developers, the public needs to know and citizens (both locally and nationally to whom these mountains belong) need to know the crucial essential pieces of the narrative that are incomplete.

Here’s the situation from our perspective in a nutshell. 

Since the passage of the Montana Wilderness Study Act of 1977, the Forest Service nationally has been charged with maintaining all Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) to the degree and form of Wilderness-worthiness that they existed at the time of the law’s passage. Such classification means excluding today’s wheeled vehicle inundation. This includes especially and specifically monitoring for and preventing illegal trespass in all WSAs. 

In southwest Montana and in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, our prime concern has been the Hyalite Porcupine Buffalo Horn WSA that straddles the Gallatin Mountains. 

Spanning 155,000 acres, and most vital to wildlife habitat, biodiversity and genetic integrity of wildlife,  this WSA encompasses wildlife-rich lower-elevation valleys of Porcupine and Buffalo Horn creeks.  These west-facing valley drainages, located right across busy US Highway 191 from Big Sky, are variously and iconically inhabited by several rare species and, in addition, are used as migration corridors and as wintering and birthing grounds for vibrant populations of elk, grizzly bears, wolves, and other species. It is that very area of the mountains that the partnership does not propose for Wilderness. 
The Gallatins, distant, serve as a migration corridor for wildlife coming in and out of Yellowstone and a geographic buffer against exploding levels of development occurring on the other side in Big Sky. Photo courtesy NPS
The Gallatins, distant, serve as a migration corridor for wildlife coming in and out of Yellowstone and a geographic buffer against exploding levels of development occurring on the other side in Big Sky. Photo courtesy NPS
Meanwhile, conservation advocates like Montanans for Gallatin Wilderness, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, Gallatin Wildlife Association, Gallatin Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance, the Park County Environmental Council and a wide array of scientists and citizens have maintained that those lower-elevation drainages of the Porcupine and Buffalo Horn need Wilderness protection—that is, they need to be preserved permanently under the safeguards of the 1964 Wilderness Act. This issue is nationally significant because it involves public lands at the core of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Wildlife that lives part of the year in Yellowstone National Park relies upon protected habitat that remains of high quality in the Gallatins. This is not disputed by the partnership yet it is advocating for the very user groups guilty of violating WSA standards laid out in federal law. And now it wants to reward them by allowing them by allowing them to dictate less Wilderness protection as a precondition for them supporting any conservation plan?  

When an earlier and failed iteration of the Gallatin Forest Partnership, then called the Gallatin Community Collaborative, was unsuccessful at finding common ground, from which to arrive at visionary solutions to land designation disputes in the Gallatins, it disbanded and another group formed. 

That entity, the Gallatin Forest Partnership, excluded the likes of the groups mentioned above because many of us, with science as our foundation, believed they were willing to compromise away big swaths of the Gallatins that qualify for, and deserve, better protection. 
"The Custer Gallatin Forest, like the Gallatin Forest Partnership, has not to date addressed concerns raised about rising levels of outdoor recreation on grizzly bears and elk and has not demonstrated that it is considering the importance of Wilderness in creating landscapes more resilient to the impacts of increased human development, no-end-in-sight resource extraction pressures and climate change."
Thus, ironically, it was the partnership itself that placed them putatively “at the margins” from where  they are now scrutinizing the partnership’s proposal. Meanwhile, the partnership has presumed to speak as the only voice for sound environmental advocacy. This is deeply flawed thinking and it's among the reasons why I can no longer support the Montana Wilderness Association.

Lest I be unclear, a crucial component of citizen and government undertakings in these conversations has been the Forest Service, which in recent years has become increasingly conflict-averse. While it might call itself a conservation agency, history shows it only becomes deserving of that description when hastened by the public.

The Custer Gallatin Forest, like the Gallatin Forest Partnership, has not to date addressed concerns raised about rising levels of outdoor recreation on grizzly bears and elk and has not demonstrated that it is considering the importance of Wilderness in creating landscapes more resilient to the impacts of increased human development, no-end-in-sight resource extraction pressures and climate change.

The Custer Gallatin has not only fallen down for a long time now in enforcing the 1977 Montana Wilderness Study Act and prevented overuses that would degrade the lands’ 1977 Wilderness worthiness; it has allowed or been unable to prevent illegal mechanized trespass and illegal trail-building by recreationists that still continues  

The Custer Gallatin has failed to even publicly acknowledge the fact that, and notwithstanding Gallatin Forest Partnership’s rhetoric to the contrary, Wilderness would provide far greater safeguards than other less potent and less enforceable designations can. Designations like the misnomer of “Wildlife Management Area” actually has the high potential of becoming a wildlife-displacing mountain biking mecca in the crucial lower elevation valleys of the Porcupine and Buffalo Horn. As well – and this is even more difficult to predict – motorized recreation would be legally allowable there. Probably e-bikes too. Only Wilderness designation could prevent that and actually make management easier.

Leaders of the Gallatin Forest Partnership audaciously and dissimulatively say that their plan would “limit new trail development to front country areas”—areas that actually need the greatest protection against increased recreation. The “front country areas” that would be released from Wilderness consideration are precisely not the places to “confine” new trail development and its accompanied mechanized travel. The Forest Service is silent on this misrepresentation, a false picture of which it can only be well aware. 
Writer Joe Scalia snowshoeing in Buffalo Horn Creek this winter. "If protecting the wildlife fullness here meant I could no longer snowshoe, I'd support that. Conservation is not about my enjoyment. It's about a higher good." Photo courtesy Joe Scalia
Writer Joe Scalia snowshoeing in Buffalo Horn Creek this winter. "If protecting the wildlife fullness here meant I could no longer snowshoe, I'd support that. Conservation is not about my enjoyment. It's about a higher good." Photo courtesy Joe Scalia
To invoke a term like "Wildlife Management Area" as a panacea or suitable replacement for Wilderness in order to placate mountain bikers, as the partnership does, is troubling in a variety of ways, but most demonstrably in the fact that both it and the Custer Gallatin Forest have been evasive in answering to the numerous concerns raised by a veritable Who’s Who of Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem scientists.  They include prominent experts in landscape conservation, former civil servants and NGO leaders, business owners, every kind of outdoor recreationist, including hunters, anglers, ATV users and mountain bikers, and even the former superintendent of Yellowstone Mike Finley, who recently served as chairman of the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission and before that served on the board of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

Collectively, advocates of more Wilderness have all made patently and explicitly clear that anything less than full Wilderness protection for at least all of the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn and especially its lower-elevation valleys that the partnership would cede to mechanized, including motorized, recreation would be a serious failure of conservation.

Consider, too, that the Custer Gallatin Forest has failed the public in several other crucial ways, essentially greatly exacerbating, if not downright passively enabling the community tensions and enmities around the fate of the lands in the Gallatin Range where more than 250,000 acres of Wilderness could actually be designated. Doing so would not cost any jobs to the resource extraction industry nor would it cause any great hardship for mountain biking and motorized interests which have hundreds of miles of ridable trails elsewhere in less important wildlife habitat.

Wilderness is considered the “gold standard” of conservation. Why? Because it makes wildlife habitat protection a priority. 

The Forest Service has neglected to answer to the needs of protecting our forests against climate change’s many impacts. When was the last time you remember hearing leaders from the Custer Gallatin talk publicly about climate change? Further, the Custer Gallatin has failed to live up to its agreement to hold grizzly bear habitat to the highest standard possible, an agreement it made in an effort to set the stage for the government’s delisting of the grizzly bear from its Endangered Species Act designation and attendant protections therein. 
When the Custer Gallatin agreed to the forest plan revisions in order to protect grizzlies, mountain biking wasn't considered a priority use and/or identified as a major use in the Gallatin Range, certainly not to disqualify WSAs like the Porcupine and Buffalo Horn from receiving Wilderness protection.

Relatedly, the Custer Gallatin Forest has over and over again misrepresented or outright ignored the science regarding the impacts of logging and of the roadbuilding that comes with it—impacts that have grown even more deleterious as climate change’s many effects on southwest Montana mushroom. Instead, we see the Forest Service silent in the face of mendaciously named proposals like the “Resilient Federal Forests Act,” which would pretend that logging in forests expected to become increasingly drier and hotter is an ecologically generative activity and a way to control wildfire.

And, in fact, the Partnership plan would allow precisely that possibility in the Porcupine and Buffalo Horn drainages. That is, the Forest Service could elect, by invoking categorical exclusion to fully comply with law, to build logging roads and log the forests under the guise of “treating” or “thinning” the forest to add “resilience.” Much or most of recent logging in Montana has been so called, rather than acknowledging its commercial nature and motive to revive large timber industry that isn't coming back. 

All of this said, I sympathize. One can only imagine, if not having to survive within the agency oneself, what it must be like to be ecologically-minded career Forest Service employee or a professional environmentalist who must effectively treat public lands as multi-use resources if they want to continue within or advance inside of their vocations. 
"The irony is that the partnership's own statement practically amounts to a stand-alone argument for why the full Gallatins need more Wilderness protection and affirms the need to limit industrial-strength recreation pressure in the face of population growth and climate change." 
The pressures must be enormous to once again think of our forests as being inexhaustible, able to be carved up again and again by traditional resource extraction and/or outdoor recreation, repeating mistakes of the past.

Astoundingly, the Gallatin Forest Partnership readily acknowledged in its essay for Mountain Journal what the future holds for the Gallatins with increased recreation, driven by population growth, based on its own assessment of what happened when the Montana Wilderness Act of 1988 was vetoed by President Ronald Reagan.  In its piece for MoJo, partnership representatives wrote: 

“Over the next three decades [from 1988], population growth in neighboring towns combined with a lack of enforcement [by the Forest Service] and more powerful machines led to more people riding snowmobiles, motorcycles and mountain bikes further into the Gallatin backcountry, slowly eroding the range’s wilderness character.”  

The irony is that the partnership's own statement practically amounts to a stand-alone argument for why the full Gallatins need more Wilderness protection and affirms the need to limit industrial-strength recreation pressure in the face of population growth and climate change. 

It is not that compromise can be avoided. It is not that anyone can get everything one wants. It is not that the Gallatins can sustain both heavy recreational use that will only grow in the future and maintain wildlife as it exists today.

The problem with the collaborate-and-prematurely compromise model used by the partnership is that it settles for less from the very beginning—that is, it crucially shuns efforts by astute and capable advocates to bring to public consciousness a case for why we need more Wilderness and why we need to think ahead; it shies away from the tack of raising public consciousness, passion and public support for Wilderness. It neglects an uncompromising, emancipatory voice for wildlife which has already given up much, and for acknowledging ecosystem vulnerability. Further, it rejects the need for a full philosophical and a full scientific encounter with the issues at hand, issues that are no less than a fight for what the human being is becoming, and what the human will be in decades to come if our taking of wildness now deprives wildlife from having a home in the future. 

Far worse, it lets the Custer Gallatin National Forest off the hook from reckoning with its numerous previous failures of following the law and serving as responsible stewards for some of the last and rarest high-quality wildlands remaining in Greater Yellowstone and important to this country’s first national park. In the old days, the groups that today are foundational to the partnership would have demanded more from the Forest Service.

Instead of trying to marginalize other conservationists pushing for more protection, members of the Gallatin Forest Partnership ought to be joining us in applying more pressure on the Custer Gallatin to be  foresighted—to look after the best long-term public interest which is the duty of Forest Service civil servants.
How much of the Gallatins should be protected?  Photo courtesy NPS
How much of the Gallatins should be protected? Photo courtesy NPS
In its opinion piece for Mountain Journal, the Gallatin Forest Partnership wrote, “The Partnership’s agreement will permanently protect the entire Hyalite Porcupine Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area and surrounding roadless areas.”

This sadly must be pointed to as a form of double-speak, for reasons I trust I have already made clear. Under their proposal, the most sensitive and important ecological part of this Wilderness Study Area would be ceded to mechanized, and possibly motorized travel and would inevitably become, in the next couple of decades, a recreational destination that will have profoundly damaging effects on wildlife integrity. 

To reiterate and underscore, as it is such a crucial consideration, that kind of thinking has been unequivocally decried by prominent experts in the scientific community, which both the Gallatin Forest Partnership and the Custer Gallatin Forest have not addressed convincingly one way or another. 

Instead, the partnership glibly and indefensibly, even really laughably, declared that “In the southern part of the Gallatin Range – the Porcupine Buffalo Horn area – where existing heavy recreation use has produced a confusing network of braided, eroding user created trails, the Partnership’s agreement proposes to address this issue to benefit both wildlife and recreation.”

This simply must be called what it is – and I am sorry to have to say it —disingenuous, clouding of the truth.  As I’ve noted in a promotional video for the Gallatin Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance [see below], we either pay the small price now of forethought and self-restraint, the giving up of our demands for more and more recreation and fun, more and more “use of resources,” or we pay the terrible price in decades to come of a despoiled Gallatin Mountain Range and Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. 

NOTE: Joseph Scalia III, Psya.D, is President of the Gallatin Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance, and a former president and current critic of Montana Wilderness Association. In his day job, he is a psychoanalyst practicing in the northern reaches of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, in the shadow of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.  All sentiments expressed here are Scalia's own and not necessarily those of Mountain Journal.


Joseph Scalia III
About Joseph Scalia III

Joseph Scalia III, Psya.D. is a practicing psychoanalyst and social critic. He is a former President of the Montana Wilderness Association and the current President of the Gallatin Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance. He's been actively involved in community and conservation causes around southwest Montana for decades. 
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