Jeff Shanafelt, a fire management officer on the Hebgen Lake Ranger District, discusses South Plateau plan objectives in an October 2022 video on the proposal. Credit: Courtesy U.S. Forest Service

Three environmental groups signaled Wednesday their intention to stop a 16,000-acre logging and prescribed-fire project located in a national forest west of Yellowstone National Park. 

In their notice of intent to sue the Custer Gallatin National Forest, the Center for Biological Diversity, Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Council on Wildlife and Fish argued that the South Plateau Project’s clear-cutting, logging and road-building will threaten grizzly bears and lynx, both of which are federally protected under the Endangered Species Act. The groups also said the Forest Service’s plan to identify areas to be logged only after crews are on the ground inhibits public involvement and precludes adequate analysis of potential harm to wildlife.

The South Plateau Landscape Area Treatment Project involves 5,551 acres of clear-cuts, 6,593 acres of commercial thinning, and construction of 57 miles of roads spread across a 40,000-acre area of southwest Montana dominated by lodgepole pine forest. The project area is bordered by Yellowstone National Park to the east, U.S. Highway 20 to the north and the Montana-Idaho border to the west and south.

The South Plateau project calls for logging about 16,000 acres within a 40,000-acre region of southwest Montana. Credit: U.S. Forest Service

Nick Mustoe, the acting ranger for the Hebgen Lake Ranger District, cleared the project when he signed a decision last month finding that the proposal “would meet the need for action and would not result in effects to the human environment.” In the decision, the agency described the project as an attempt to “increase landscape resilience to insects and disease, treat hazardous fuels, and contribute to a sustained yield of timber products.”

The groups challenging the proposal contend that the project will threaten thousands of acres of grizzly bear and lynx habitat and allows for “significantly more logging and road building” than the Custer-Gallatin Forest Plan authorizes. In a video released last October, South Plateau was described as one of the first timber projects the Custer Gallatin National Forest had forwarded since adopting a new management eight months prior.

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The agency’s announcement was welcomed by Republican officials, who’ve long sought to restore management of grizzly bears to state agencies. Environmentalists questioned whether USFWS is fulfilling the mandates of the Endangered Species Act and cast doubt on Montana’s ability to manage grizzlies sustainably.

Kristine Akland, who heads up the Center for Biological Diversity’s Northern Rockies program, described the project in a press release as “reckless.” 

“The fragile Yellowstone ecosystem surrounding this iconic national park is vital for Montanas’ rich biodiversity and the climate,” Akland said. “This project must be stopped before our beautiful backcountry forests are bulldozed.”

Alliance for the Wild Rockies Executive Director Mike Garrity said in an email that the Forest Service needs to “drop the South Plateau Project and quit clear-cutting old-growth forests — especially clear-cutting and bulldozing new logging roads in grizzly habitat on the border of Yellowstone National Park.”

In addition to challenging the proposal’s impact on protected wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity, Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Council on Wildlife and Fish said South Plateau conflicts with President Joe Biden’s pledge to protect old-growth and mature forests. 

Last April, Biden signed an executive order directing federal agencies to analyze threats to mature and old-growth forests and develop policies to “institutionalize climate-smart management and conservation strategies” to address those threats. The order cited old-growth and mature forests’ importance to biodiversity, carbon storage, recreation, and clean air and water initiatives.

According to a database compiled by the Forest Service, the 40,000-acre project boundary includes areas with a high percentage of mature forests, which “contain more complexity in size and tree arrangement than younger forests but lack larger tree sizes and complex tree arrangement found in old growth.”

The U.S. Forest Service climate risk viewer maps old-growth and mature forests so land managers can be better informed when making decisions that could impact them.

In an interview Wednesday with Montana Free Press, Mustoe said allowing crews to identify specific areas within the project boundary for logging and prescribed burning will let them take into account specific variables ranging from old-growth forests to how wildlife use the landscape.

“I think that what [we’re attempting] to do is make sure we’re doing the right treatment in the right place,” he said.

Mustoe said mitigating the risk of difficult-to-control crown fires and increasing age-class diversity to discourage mountain pine beetle outbreaks are also important components of the South Plateau Project.

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“Over half of our project area is considered Wildland-Urban Interface by Gallatin County,” he said, adding that reducing timber will give firefighters a better opportunity to safely suppress a wildfire if one starts within the project boundary.

The notice of intent to sue starts a 60-day timer for the Forest Service to respond to the groups’ concerns. After that period, they can file a lawsuit in federal court to halt the project.

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Amanda Eggert studied print journalism at the University of Montana. Prior to becoming a full-time journalist, Amanda spent four years working with the Forest Service as a wildland firefighter. After leaving the Forest Service in 2014, Amanda worked for Outside magazine as an editorial fellow before joining Outlaw Partners’ staff to lead coverage for Explore Big Sky newspaper and contribute writing and editing to Explore Yellowstone and Mountain Outlaw magazines. Prior to joining Montana Free Press’ staff in 2021 Amanda was a freelance writer, researcher and interviewer. In addition to writing...