A Clear Vision for the Gallatins

A Clear Vision for the Gallatins

Note: This piece was co-written by advocates from Wild Montana, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, and The Wilderness Society.

Stretching between the iconic, wild splendor of Yellowstone and the bustling community of Bozeman, Montana, lies the Gallatin Range. These pristine mountains are studded with diverse habitats and wildlife, and saddled with environmental change. Despite the full parking lots and crowded trailheads studding their borders, the Gallatins’ glaciated reaches still harbor brilliant headwater streams, primordial forests, and lush meadows marked only by the gentle depressions of the previous night’s bedded deer. This range, while relatively unknown compared to its iconic neighboring landscapes, has inspired a resolute community of local advocates fighting for its preservation.

It’s a good thing, too. As the last unprotected mountain range connected to Yellowstone National Park, the Gallatins represent one of the most vulnerable pieces of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. This area needs definitive protections, but conservationists have fought for —  and even quarreled over —  the Gallatins for decades without resolution. At Wild Montana, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, and The Wilderness Society, we have walked that long path alongside countless others, driven by our passion to see permanent protections for this vital landscape before it’s too late. Now, even as mounting pressures threaten the integrity of this landscape, a definitive and triumphant destination is finally within sight. But the end of the road may prove the steepest stretch to climb. As we push forward, we want to share our vision for the Gallatins as part of the Gallatin Forest Partnership and clarify what that vision would truly mean for this contentious, wild sanctuary. 

The Gallatins’ fate is inexorably tied to that of its wildlife. Iconic species like elk, grizzly bear, wolverine, bighorn sheep, and lynx have driven the decades-long conversation about this range’s fate. The Gallatin Range holds outstanding and diverse habitats like ancient whitebark pine forests and low elevation grasslands that are as essential for wildlife as they are exceedingly rare. Because this habitat is still relatively continuous throughout the range, the Gallatins constitute an essential artery for wildlife migrations and movement — a value commonly referred to as wildlife connectivity. That connectivity is ecologically vital for wildlife populations moving between the haven of Yellowstone and the sprawling Northern Rockies.

These qualities make the Gallatins an integral piece of the vast, interconnected, irreplaceable landscape we call the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem — one of the last intact temperate ecosystems in the world. It is Greater Yellowstone’s connectivity that makes it so much greater than the sum of its parts. Yet, like a single living entity, it will only remain viable if kept whole. As a vital connectivity corridor within the heart of the larger Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the protections we secure —  or fail to secure —  for the Gallatins will have profound implications far beyond the range itself.

The threat to these mountains is real and immediate. Yet unlike a mine, dam, or other tangible danger, the Gallatins face death by a thousand cuts inflicted by you, me, and every other person that takes to the mountains seeking a slice of paradise. Our booming communities press in from all sides at a time when climate change strains the very fabric of this natural refuge. In short, the development and recreational demand spurred by the ecosystem’s own beauty threaten to dismember it. 

Since 1977, the tide of recreators has been stemmed somewhat by the designation of a 155,000 acre Wilderness Study Area (WSA) in the heart of the Gallatins. This temporary measure was meant to preserve the range’s wild character from a proliferating human footprint while the area was considered for a permanent wilderness designation. The trouble is, the Gallatins’ WSA could be removed at any time, opening the landscape to unprecedented human impacts. Until definitive, permanent protections are written into law by Congress, the fate of the Gallatins, and the multitude of creatures that would vanish without these mountains, hangs in the balance. Never before has this dark prospect loomed more ominously. It is time for decisive action.

As three conservation organizations with a combined 191 years of experience working to preserve Greater Yellowstone, we believe the Gallatin Forest Partnership Agreement is the best path to permanently protecting the Gallatin Range from the forces that threaten its untamed spirit. The partnership’s agreement represents an enormous win for wildlife and wild spaces — a community supported, stakeholder driven plan focused on preserving habitat connectivity and limiting recreation pressure. It calls for contiguous protections for the range – both the WSA and some surrounding areas – from the boundary of Yellowstone National Park to the northern terminus of public land at the ever-expanding foot of Bozeman. Securing this much continuous habitat would protect the wildlife connectivity that is so essential for both the Gallatins and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. 

The specific protections vary by location, but they work in concert to create overarching results worth mentioning. First and foremost, the recommended designations would permanently cap recreational development within the WSA. In other words, the trail and road footprint within the WSA would be limited to what currently exists on the ground – or has already been permitted by a prior Forest Service planning process – today. This bold step is essential if we are to keep the Gallatins from being continually fragmented by new roads and trails, which experts agree impacts wildlife. 

There is also the important question of timber harvest to consider. The GFP agreement categorically prohibits all forms of logging in the new Gallatin Range Wilderness, Porcupine Buffalo Horn Wildlife and Recreation Management Area, and upper reaches of the Hyalite Watershed Protection and Recreation Area within the boundaries of the current WSA. The only portion of the WSA where vegetation management could occur to address fire concerns for the wildland-urban interface would be in West Pine, in the Gallatins’ northeast corner, where any activities would need to be compatible with the Roadless Rule. Road construction – temporary or permanent – would not be allowed anywhere within the WSA. Instead, the agreement recommends prescribed fire to preserve habitat and return the Gallatins to their natural, fire-resistant state that existed here since time immemorial before colonization suppressed these processes and disrupted the ecological balance. This revival is essential if we are to mitigate the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.

To reach these critical outcomes, the GFP agreement is centered around the creation of 102,000 acres of new wilderness in the wild heart of the Gallatins. Part of that wilderness would protect rare, low-elevation habitat in places like Big Creek; not just the high elevation “rock and ice” areas that comprise so much of Montana’s existing wilderness areas. Securing this diverse refugia for wildlife is more important now than ever before, considering the widespread destruction of such high-quality areas due to climate change and other human impacts. 

But the GFP agreement goes beyond wilderness designations alone. Parts of the existing WSA and surrounding landscape have long-established recreation uses that make these places ineligible to receive a wilderness designation. The GFP still has a plan for enhancing protections for these areas as well. One prominent example is the Big Sky snowmobiling trail in Porcupine Buffalo Horn, where motorized uses have been occurring for over 60 years. Yet, despite the impacts of non-wilderness recreation, there remains an abundance of extraordinary wildlife habitat. To give up on these landscapes because they can’t be designated wilderness would be a tremendous loss. 

Our organizations made significant strides in reducing the motorized footprint in the Gallatin Range through successful litigation over the Travel Plan in 2006. Now, we’re pushing for the highest protections possible for these areas. Under the GFP Agreement, Porcupine Buffalo Horn and West Pine would be protected as Wildlife and Recreation Management Areas (WRMA) – a designation that, once written into law, is just as permanent as wilderness but can be applied to places with the types of recreation that exist today. The GFP Agreement and its WRMAs solidify the conservation gains from the 2006 legal victory by maintaining existing legal access for recreation in the reduced footprint where it exists today and prohibiting trail proliferation further into the landscape. Like designated wilderness, the WRMAs emphasize wildlife as a priority and also prohibit road construction, mining activities, and other industrial development. 

For the past six years, the work of actually gaining these key protections has centered on the revision of the forest-wide management plan for Custer Gallatin National Forest. While the new plan, released in January 2022 after a long period of community engagement and feedback, is not the end of the road for protecting this iconic landscape, it does outline how the range will be managed for decades to come. Critically, however, the forest plan cannot establish permanent designations like wilderness, which take an act of Congress. The new management plan was released to widespread community support and incorporated many of the designations advocated for by the Gallatin Forest Partnership. Namely, it recommends new wilderness in the heart of the range and creates backcountry areas similar to the WRMAs outlined in the GFP agreement. The previous iteration of the forest plan, adopted in 1987, included zero acres of recommended wilderness in the Gallatin Range. The new plan’s addition of acres of recommended wilderness for the Gallatins is a significant milestone in securing the suture of this landscape.

While the new Custer Gallatin National Forest forest plan represents a major step forward for conservation in the Gallatins, it’s also important to be clear about the ways it missed the mark or could have been even stronger. For example, the plan shrank the our recommended boundaries of key protective designations, leaving Hidden Lakes out of the Porcupine WRMA and failing to include Hyalite Peak in the Recommended Wilderness Area. While, all things considered, the GFP is pleased with the progress the new forest plan represents, we will continue to push for the full protections as outlined in the GFP agreement.

Another important missed opportunity relates to the monitoring of recreational uses. In 2018, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition conducted a comprehensive review of scientific research and found a troubling lack of information, let alone consensus, regarding changing recreation pressure in the region and its impacts on wildlife. We acknowledge that this work is not currently included in the Forest Service’s federal mandates as well as the lack of resources afforded Forest Service staff to conduct such activities. Regardless, the new forest plan will be in place long into the future and we feel it must aspire to meet the ecosystem’s true needs. The GFP also supports implementing seasonal closures to all recreation types at key times of year when wildlife are under stress. Improving our understanding of the Gallatins’ skyrocketing recreational pressure is absolutely essential if we hope to manage the area effectively. That cannot happen without monitoring and subsequent closures. Even sweeping wilderness designations aren’t enough to meet this need, since the same challenges exist in nearby wilderness areas like the Madison Range’s Beehive Basin and Lava Lake.

While forest planning is a key part of setting the stage for legislative action, the only way to secure the Gallatin Range once and for all is through an act of Congress. The Gallatins’ many advocates may not agree on every detail, but certainly we can find common ground here. There are always efforts at play to strip the Gallatins of their WSA designation entirely. To make matters worse, since forest plans are supposed to be revised every 20 or so years, the next version could roll back even the temporary protections gained in this most recent revision. In the face of staggering population growth and in increasing demand for unfettered access to wild spaces, are we confident that it won’t? After all, we saw something similar play out in the Lionshead area of the southern Madisons, where the Forest Service’s long-standing wilderness recommendation was replaced with a backcountry area. If we do nothing, this will eventually happen to the Gallatins. 

The clock is ticking. If the road to legislation seems long now, just imagine how it will feel after ten or twenty more years of urban growth and recreational impacts. The Gallatins’ many advocates must swiftly rally behind a legislative proposal with sound environmental protections and formidable political legs under it. For those of us in the GFP, we will advocate doggedly for the partnership’s complete and undiluted proposal to be written into law. 

The Gallatin Range is irreplaceable. From its lush meadows alive with elk and birdsongs to its wild, foreboding heights, the Gallatins offer all who visit them respite from busy lives and a glimpse into the ancestral truth of this last, best place. With so much to lose, it is understandable when passions run high and disagreement breaks out. After all, so much of Greater Yellowstone has already been changed beyond return. We cannot turn back the clocks. Still, if we stand together for our figurative and literal common ground, we can protect what remains today for generations to come. 

Land Acknowledgement: 

The Gallatin Range has been a shared hunting and gathering ground for the Shoshone, Blackfoot, and other indigenous peoples for thousands of years. We acknowledge these Tribes’ roles as ancestral stewards as well as their deep spiritual and cultural ties to this landscape.