Shrinking Wilderness in the Gallatin Range

Windy Pass, Gallatin Range, Gallatin National Forest. Photo: George Wuerthner.

The recently released Custer Gallatin National Forest Service plan shrinks interim wilderness protections for the 155,000-acre Hyalite Porcupine Buffalohorn Wilderness Study Area (HPBH WSA).

The HPBH WSA was established by Senate bill S. 393 in 1977. Among the mandates in the Act: SEC. 3. (a) says: “Except as otherwise provided by this section, and subject to existing private rights, the wilderness study areas designated by this Act shall, until Congress determines otherwise, be administered by the Secretary of Agriculture so as to maintain their presently existing wilderness character and potential for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation Systems.”

Congress did not say “may” maintain, or “could” maintain if it were convenient. The Act says “shall” maintain wilderness character.

Instead of following the Congressional instruction, the Forest Service has permitted non-conforming activities in the WSA such as mountain biking, ORV use, and snowmobiling. Some (Gallatin Forest Partnership) use this past FS inaction to follow Congressional mandates to claim we cannot expect to protect the entire Gallatin Range as wilderness.

In the 1990s Congress directed the Forest Service to acquire private inholdings in the southern part of the range with the expressed intent of enabling future wilderness designation.

Instead of honoring Congressional intent by recommending wilderness for the entire HPBH WSA, the Forest Service is using an unknown and untested “Backcountry” status for the wildlife-rich Buffalohorn Porcupine drainages which, among other things, permits mechanical access.

With the continued population pressures surrounding the Bozeman area, we need to preserve every last acre of wild country with the strongest and time-tested designations like inclusion in the Wilderness Act. Unfortunately, the Forest Service has failed its ethical and legal obligation to protect the full extent of the Gallatin Range wildlands for biodiversity, carbon storage, and wildlife.

Time for Congress to create a 270,000-acre Gallatin Range Wilderness as advocated by the Gallatin Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy