Custer Gallatin National Forest releases environmental assessment for 39,000-acre project
By Moosetrack Megan

Posted: February 23, 2021

West Yellowstone, MT…On February 23, the Custer Gallatin National Forest will release the final environmental assessment, finding of no significant impact and draft decision notice for the South Plateau Area Landscape Treatment Project.   Situated just south and west of West Yellowstone, MT, the project area encompasses 39,900 acres.  This decision will guide timber and fuels treatments on a maximum of 16,462 of those acres over the next 15 years with the primary goals of increasing forest health and resiliency to insect and disease and reducing hazardous fuels.  It also calls for the closure and rehabilitation of Road 478 along the South Fork of the Madison River to improve water quality and for opening a portion of Road 1704 to maintain public access.  Project implementation activities on South Plateau are expected to begin as early as fall of 2021 and will continue for up to 15 years, including all revegetation and restorative actions.

South Plateau is part of a larger effort on the Hebgen Lake Ranger District to manage the forest for ecosystem health and public benefit.  Past and ongoing projects such as Lonesomewood II and North Hebgen lay a foundation for addressing fuels and forest health across the Hebgen Basin.   The South Plateau is dominated by lodgepole forests of similar age and poor condition that are highly susceptible to widespread and long-term loss due to natural events such as insects, disease and wildfire.  By implementing treatments on susceptible stands across the Plateau, the project gains diversity and resilience on a broad landscape scale.  This enhances wildlife and aquatic habitat as well as provides benefits to watershed conditions.  Further, by reducing hazardous fuels, the project increases the effectiveness of future fire suppression activities while reducing risk to the public and first responders during wildfire events.

The activities outlined by South Plateau incorporate an array of management treatments across multiple units within the project boundary.  Broadly these include commercial harvest, non-commercial thinning, prescribed burns, fireline/fuel break construction and restoration of beneficial species such as aspen, whitebark pine and willow.   This work will be completed by local Forest Service crews, service contracts and timber sale and/or stewardship contracts.

Analyzing South Plateau on a landscape scale is part of a strategy that aims to address forest management on a broader scale, rather than by a piecemeal approach.  It also gives managers the ability to utilize a variety of tools depending on site-specific conditions, which are assessed by specialists throughout each step of the project.  “This condition-based management provides us flexibility throughout the South Plateau project area but also establishes numerous rigid sideboards,” says Jason Brey, Hebgen Lake district ranger.  “One example of such a sideboard is setting parameters on habitat impacts for a specific wildlife species like grizzly bear or lynx.”  Consequently, throughout the life of the project, as sideboard limits layer upon each other, there is a system of checks and balances on all activities.   As a result, overall project impacts meet all environmental laws and Forest Plan direction.

The forest service heard feedback on the draft South Plateau proposal in August during a public open house as well as throughout the official public comment period.  In response to public input, the forest service incorporated another element to the project, effectively increasing grizzly bear secure habitat by 1000 acres.  Three administrative routes–routes already closed to the public but still open for administrative purposes—will be fully closed to reduce road densities and positively benefit grizzly bear secure habitat.  This will not affect any routes open to the public.

Immediately following the publishing of the legal notice, a 45-day objection period will be open for those who previously submitted official comments during the initial public comment period.  Objections, including attachments, must be filed via mail, express delivery, or messenger service: (to Objection Reviewing Officer, USDA Forest Service, Northern Region, 26 Fort Missoula Road, Missoula, MT  59804); FAX to (406) 329-3411; email to appeals-northern-regional-office@usda.gov or by hand-delivery Monday through Friday 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., excluding holidays at USDA Forest Service, 26 Fort Missoula Road, Missoula, MT  59804. Formats that will be accepted for electronically submitted comments are: Word, PDF, and/or Excel.

The environmental assessment, finding of no significant impact, draft decision notice, and supporting documentation are available online at: https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=57353Additional information regarding this action can be obtained from: Amee Rief, 406-823-6975 or amee.rief@usda.gov.