It’s all about future generations: Conflicting views on the GRLA Plan

Courtesy photo Connecting the Lynx: Consultations between USFS and FW about the latest Lynx data for the Greater Red Lodge Area is ongoing and is required to supplement the Environmental Impact Statement for the FS plan.

The USFS Record of Decisions for the Greater Red Lodge Vegetation and Habitat Management and Nichols Creek Road Reconstruction (GRLA plan) project for the Custer-Gallatin National Forests was recently held up by court injunction due to a lack of consideration of the latest lynx data. Alliance for the Rockies had filed the lawsuit challenging the Environmental Impact Study (EIS). Beartooth Ranger Ken Coffin said although the GRLA plan was withdrawn, the EIS is being supplemented and “then we will determine how to proceed.” He said, “We disagree. We felt we had done that stuff.” Fish and Wildlife (FW) “had signed off.”

But the court felt a 2015, Ninth Circuit federal court decision, the Cottonwood case, required re-consulting with FW about the Lynx Amendment. In 2013, the USFS remapped the area materially decreasing Lynx habitat from 232,689 acres of the Lynx Amendment to 112,988 acres. “We are working to consult at the regional office with FW per the court order,” said Coffin adding, “The project is not dead.”

Coffin doesn’t think there are many lynx present. He acknowledges that the plan will disturb the habitat and might cause wildlife to avoid the area at first. But the USFS plans to make it better “for future generations 30, 40, 100 years from now.”

“It’s not profit driven,” he said in response a comment by Alliance’s Executive Director Michael Garrity that the cost of clear cutting acres of timber in the plan would not reap a profit. He said some of it is not marketable, like “scrubby subalpine fir”, but it needs to be cleared. “Fuels reduction along the (urban/wilderness) interface drove the project,” he said on Tuesday, Feb. 7. “But there are a lot of benefits that come out of that aspen restoration. It does a lot for us.”

By removing stands of lodgepole pine, Coffin said it opens the canopy for diverse plants to come in, especially aspen. Aspen are a natural firebreak “full of water” that helps fire to “lay down.” He said the GRLA Plan will “break up continuity of big stands” creating “good wildlife habitat.” Lodgepole must be taken as a whole stand because remaining trees “would not be wind firm.” In other areas, ponderosa pine might be cleared and lodgepole would remain. Garrity declared, “The Forest Service is not making better wildlife habitat. The logging will reduce forested cover for grizzly bears by 1,071 acres, which is an 8% reduction. The effects are concentrated in a relatively small area around Red Lodge Creek, which may result in displacement of grizzly bears from this immediate area.”

“It’s overdue,” said Coffin about the clearing of some areas, noting some stands had not seen natural fires for 100 years. Our options to manage the big landscapes are limited. It’s fuel breaks…irregular hedges…not a big dozer line.”

Coffin explained, “The other piece of that, Mike Garrity said we’ll lose $588,000 on the timber sale. It’s not a timber sale. We had all that work set up in a stewardship contract. A timber sale is one way to achieve that goal.” He said with a timber sale the wood must be marketable and the profits go to the Treasury. “Instead, in a stewardship project there is a lot more latitude with what we do with the money.” Proceeds can go back into the forest for weed spraying, fuels work, road culverts, making aquatic organism passages (aop’s) to help fish, etc. move upstream.

Garrity said, “The Forest Service first says the money they are going to make from the logging will be used to repair logging roads, replace culverts and plant trees. When it is pointed out to them they are losing money…they always say we are not here to make money.”

He voiced concerns about major species here currently designated ‘threatened.’) “Over the past four years, 16 grizzly bears have been seen within one mile of the Project area.” Regarding lynx presents, the Alliance lawsuit’s “undisputed facts” state: “The Project area is considered occupied by Canada lynx, and all proposed Project units are located within designated lynx critical habitat.” Garrity continued, “The commercial logging for the Project includes hundreds of acres of clearcutting. Clearcutting is not restoration of forests. It is destruction of forests. The Forest Service wanted to sacrifice lynx, grizzly bear, and elk habitat to subsidize the timber industry to the tune of $588,000 federal taxpayer dollars. “ He said, “The project would have built and rebuilt 19 miles of logging roads – some of which are currently trails-to commercially log 1,051 acres over a period of five to ten years.” According to the Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan, roads are one of the “most imminent threats to grizzly habitat today.” Garrity noted, “The project also included clearcutting over 500 acres of mature forests in federally-designated lynx critical habitat and grizzly bear habitat.”

Coffin said he has seen clear cut stands in Yellowstone National Park “regenerate 20 foot plus lodgepoles in my lifetime.” The Canadian lynx’s primary diet is snowshoe hare. According to the state website this hare “uses dense riparian thickets in eastern Montana.”

Garrity sees no compromise. “If the Forest Service were to go forward with this project it would destroy habitat for lynx and grizzly bears. This would lead them next to asking for more money to restore the same habitat they just destroyed. It is a permanent make work project for federal bureaucrats." He concluded, “The harsh reality, undeniably proven by all the best available science, is that more logging leads to less lynx. Almost all areas where there has been more logging have seen lynx decline as logging increased. It is time to say no to bulldozing more logging roads and clear cuts and get on with the important work of protecting habitat to actually recover the lynx as required by the Endangered Species Act.”

Coffin said “Thirty years ago, I don’t think anyone dreamed” that the grizzly would recover to the extent it has. “We’re here” he said. They’ve reduced timber harvests but still been actively managing in Greater Yellowstone while the grizzly is increasing in number. "I think it’s a good demonstration. We can manage land to benefit the land, the people and wildlife. It’s not been without a lot of effort.” He said the way they do business was very different 30 years ago. “We’d show up and say, here’s what we’re going to do. Give us your feedback.”

Today, Coffin said the USFS will “work with people in communities; understand what the wants and needs are, determine what the community will tolerate, then develop our project around that…We’ve already done the homework. That’s the way we strive to do business and I think that’s the right way.”