MT BHA Submits Major Concerns about Divide Travel Plan and Elk Security Amendment Draft Environmental Impact Statement

gallatin nfMontana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers is comprised of Montana hunters and fishermen who value quality fish and wildlife habitat and maintenance or enhancement of traditional non-motorized hunting and fishing opportunities.  Many of our members hunt and fish almost exclusively on public lands, and many  focus on the National Forest lands in the Divide travel plan area.  We have a deep commitment to protection of wildlife and fisheries habitats and traditional non-motorized hunting and fishing not only for the present, but to assure equal opportunities for our children and their children.

We request each of our comments be individually and thoroughly addressed in the process and be entered into the public record in their entirety.  Montana BHA has previously commented on this process as early as 2008.

The Divide Travel Plan process is a rare opportunity to move the Helena substantially toward meeting the Helena Forest Plan goals, objectives, and standards.  In contrast, most day to day Forest Service business has only minor effects moving toward meeting the goals, objectives and standards of the Helena Forest Plan.  Forest Plan Direction appropriately focuses heavily on management of the road and trail network for most Forest Plan goals, objectives and Standards.  Most of the adverse effects of man’s activities on the Forest resources are related to roads, trails, and use associated with them.

BHA Issue:  It is imperative that the Forest only retain the most essential roads and trails in choosing a final Plan, and take this opportunity to minimize the road and motorized trail network. This direction is clear in the current National Forest Service Travel Plan Policy (FSM 7710) directing a minimal network, and especially appropriate given the Forest’s acknowledgement of transportation  maintenance shortfall and even lower budget expectations in the future.  The objectives of this travel plan process must thoroughly address “FSM 7710.13. “ To determine the minimum road system needed for sustainable public and agency access to achieve the desired conditions in the applicable land management plan; to promote ecosystem health; and to address public safety and efficiency of operations in an environmentally sensitive manner within current and anticipated funding levels” (emphasis added). In the DEIS, the Helena  only considers four, closely related alternatives for the proposed action: (1) a “no action” alternatives which represents the existing baseline and authorizes motorized use on 286 miles of roads without seasonal restrictions (the existing baseline should only include routes designated for motorized use, not user-created two-tracks never authorized for motorized use); (2) the proposed action which authorizes motorized use on 284 miles roads without seasonal restrictions; (3) alternative three which authorizes motorized use on 262 miles roads without seasonal restrictions; and (4) alternative four which authorizes 265 miles of roads without seasonal restrictions. In the entire 155,500 acre planning area, therefore, the Service does not consider and analyze a single alternative that authorizes motorized use on less than 262 miles of roads. Most of the acreage open for over-snow motorized vehicle use in the alternatives is also very similar. Given the critical importance of the Divide area to wildlife (big game, grizzlies, wolverine, lynx) and wildlife connectivity in the region, and the adverse impacts associated with roads and high road density and over-snow motorized use (especially for denning wolverines), analyzing an alternative that authorizes motorized use on less than 262 miles of roads and less acreage for over-snow motorize use is necessary and required by NEPA. 

Of course, all action alternatives allowing any number of vehicles to leave the roadway anywhere along its length for up to 300 feet fails to meet minimization criteria discussed above.   We also believe a 300 foot allowance would be difficult, if not impossible  to enforce, and would likely not be enforced due to inability to prove a person was not looking for a camping spot.  Is one track now a road for others to legitimately follow…or is it two passes…or three?  In addition, travel enforcement on the Helena rarely occurs, and  therefore it is unlikely to improve in the future.  We see no discussion specifically how motorized travel enforcement will improve in the future.

BHA Issue:  The No Action Alternative (Alt 1) inappropriately includes user created routes as the baseline condition.  It is required by NEPA and case law that only the designated transportation system be used as the baseline condition to accurately compare and disclose impacts of each alternative relative to this baseline.  We request the No Action Alternative not include undesignated routes to describe the Alternative nor compare impacts of the other alternatives.

BHA Issue:  We also emphasize that the Travel Management Rule and Executive Orders 16644 and 11989 (EOs) have specific requirements to address.  Unlike NEPA, which requires agencies to assess environmental consequences of their decisions but does not obligate agencies to take actions that minimize those consequences, the Travel Management Rule requires the Forest Service to aim to minimize environmental damage when designating routes.  Therefore the Helena must consider the “minimization” criteria set out in 36 C.F.R. § 212.55(b) and document how the agency applied the criteria in its designations on the record.  The language “with the objective of minimizing” means that the whole goal or purpose of the exercise is to select routes in order to minimize impacts in light of the agency’s other duties. Simply listing the criteria and noting that they were considered is not sufficient to meet this standard. Instead, the Forest Service must explain how the minimization criteria were applied in the route designation decisions.  Executive Order 11644 directs minimizing effects on resources and other users:  (1) Areas and trails shall be located to minimize damage to soil, watershed, vegetation, or other resources of the public lands. (2) Areas and trails shall be located to minimize harassment of wildlife or significant disruption of wildlife habitats. (3) Areas and trails shall be located to minimize conflicts between off-road vehicle use and other existing or proposed recreational uses of the same or neighboring public lands, and to ensure the compatibility of such uses with existing conditions in populated areas, taking into account noise and other factors.

The interpretation of “minimizing” as discussed in DEIS Summary page 8 fails to meet national Forest Service direction.  The DEIS has not demonstrated how it has minimized damage to soil, watersheds, vegetation, harassment of wildlife and significant disruption of wildlife habitats, nor conflicts of motorized use with other recreational uses.    “Diminish impacts” or “moving toward goals and objective” is not minimizing.  Minimizing means you must address why each route to be left open to public motorized travel that  damages soil, watersheds, vegetation (including noxious weed spread), disruption of wildlife habitats or other recreational uses is indeed necessary, and use cannot be avoided. 

BHA Issue: The application of direction contained in the Travel Planning policy is not thoroughly reviewed or specifically addressed.  FSM 7710 is described as “ Requires travel analysis (FSH 7709.55, ch. 20) to inform decisions related to identification of the minimum road system (emphasis added) needed for safe and efficient travel and for administration, utilization, and protection of National Forest System (NFS) lands per 36 CFR 212.5(b) and to inform decisions related to the designation of roads, trails, and areas for motor vehicle use per 36 CFR 212.51.   The selected final travel plan must comply with the FSM 7710 of minimizing the roads network on the Forest, and a discussion of compliance with the policy included in the NEPA documents including the FEIS.

BHA Issue: Proposing adoption of a Travel Plan preferred alternative that is only compliant with the current Forest Plan elk standard  if  a speculative elk security amendment is adopted is therefore 1) premature, 2) inappropriate and 3) illegal.  The resulting NEPA elk security analysis and conclusions for this travel plan inappropriately tiers off this speculative and unapproved elk security amendment that has not had analysis nor public review, and therefore is non-compliant with NEPA.   We find the proposed elk security amendment’s application inappropriate and without science base, has been peer reviewed or concurred  by recognized elk scientists (including the authors of the Hillis Paradigm paper), does not incorporate the most current elk science, and has not been validated for being appropriate for use on Divide landscapes.  The authors of the Hillis Paradigm have questioned (we have their letter on file) the application of the Hillis Paradigm for application in the Divide Travel Plan area, yet the Hillis Paradigm is the premise for Amendment Alternative B.    The proposed application is does not reflect current scientific knowledge on elk response to hunting pressure nor all terrain vehicles.  For example, Wisdom (2007 ) found elk displaced up to 0.93 miles from the presence of an all terrain vehicle, yet the Hillis Paradigm includes hunting security areas as little as ½ mile from a open road or ORV trail.  We note the authors of the Hillis Paradigm caution that the Paradigm was developed only for densely vegetated  west-side Montana landscapes and cautioned its applicability to other landscapes.  The proposed application of the Hillis Paradigm becomes even less appropriate as the forest becomes thinner due to tree mortality, which the Forest has acknowledged has and continues to occur.   Thus the effectiveness of a 250 acre patch size for elk security is far less effective in thin or thinning stands of canopy when hunters can see much further than the thickly multistoried stands of timber found on the Lolo when the Paradigm was developed. Elk in thinner canopies also feel less secure, move with less disturbance and move further distances away from disturbance.

We assert that lack of cover can be compensated only by increasing distance from roads.  That means only an Alternative that truly minimizes open roads and does so to create large security areas can be effective.  We find Alternative 2 fails to provide sufficient elk security as well as does not minimize the Divide road system.

BHA Issue:  Proposing a preferred alternative dependent on a yet unapproved forest plan amendment  is premature and does not comply with intent of NFMA nor planning regulations.  To meet law, policy, and direction we request either 1) the elk security standards remain unaltered, or that, 2) before any Travel Plan (including the current proposal) is developed, that any elk security amendment  proposed utilizes the knowledge of  the West’s recognized independent elk scientists and use of the most current elk science  In other words, the current process has the cart before the horse, and the process does not meet the National Forest Management Act, current National Forest Planning Regulations nor NEPA.

BHA Issue: Of the two action alternatives, we find that Alternative 3 or 4 moves the Divide Travel Plan area closer to meeting Helena Forest Plan direction, including goals, objectives and standards than Alternative  2.   We support Alternative 3 as the better of the action alternatives, but believe all action alternatives are deficient in meeting laws, regulations and the Helena Forest Plan’s goals, objectives and standards.” 

We find the Preferred Alternative 2 in conflict with many aspects of the Forest Plan as described in more detail below, and therefore another Alternative must be developed/adopted to meet the current Forest Plan.

Appendix A-  Forest Plan Direction

The Forest Plan includes direction for road and trail management and provides important

guidance for this project. Forestwide direction that is applicable to this project includes:

Goal 15 (Forestwide II/2) –

Develop and implement a road management program with road use and travel restrictions that are responsive to resource protection needs and public concerns

BHA Issue:  We find that the direction to be “responsive to resource protection needs” has not met.  There has been no onsite analysis or trail condition survey of user created trails selected for adoption into the transportation network in Alternative 2, therefore the Forest cannot attest to whether these proposed routes meet Forest Plan requirements, the Clean Water Act, bull trout,  INFISH, nor direction for impaired watersheds.   A thorough analysis would specifically perform onsite inspections and then describe how each route segment affects water quality standards, riparian health nor site specific wildlife and fisheries effects.   How will user created routes not selected for adoption be treated to assure motorized travel will cease and resource impacts from these disturbed areas be rehabilitated?

BHA Issue:  We fail to find how permitted use of tracked vehicles on closed routes does not have the same adverse effects as other vehicles on wildlife displacement, user conflict and elk security. We request tracked vehicles be treated the same as other motorized vehicles regarding closures.

BHA Issue: We found both action alternatives non-responsive to several aspects of resource protection needs. For example, we object that dispersed camping is allowed up to 300 feet from any authorized route in both action alternatives.  Permitting off route travel over a band of 300 feet each side of the route invites additional resource impacts without site specific potential impact analysis. 

A wide range of alternatives would have, in at least one Alternative,  considered prohibiting all motorized travel in Inventoried Roadless Areas, except for valid mining activity or restricted access to private land inholdings. 

Objectives, Facilities (Forestwide II/6) Transportation facilities such as roads and trails will be constructed, managed, and maintained to cost effectively meet the Forest land and resource objectives and visitors’ needs. The Forests transportation system will be coordinated and integrated with public and private systems to the fullest extent possible....soil and water conservation practices will be ensure that Forest water quality goals will not be degraded

BHA Issue:  Alternative 2 as the preferred Alternative proposes to add 10 miles of user created routes into the system without a site specific analysis of the resource impacts of proposed routes to soil, water and wildlife and fish, current cost of relocation or reconstruction of such routes to bring them in compliance with water quality and fisheries standards and objectives.  We also note that adopting an expanded user created network of routes into the transportation is fiscally irresponsible to the objective of managing for cost effectiveness when elsewhere in the document the Forest acknowledges projection of an even smaller transportation maintenance budget in the future. The expectation of cost effectiveness, meeting resource objectives including soil and water conservation in face of a declining transportation maintenance budget mandate would strongly suggest shrinking the transportation network to be within the expected maintenance budget.  Additionally, the Plan ignores the avoidable risk to trail user safety when there is a degraded transportation network larger than the expected maintenance budget.

Forestwide Standards, Facilities -

Road Management (Forestwide II/3132) the criteria to be used for road, trail or area restrictions are safety, resource protection, economics, conflicting uses, facility protection, public support, land management objectives.

BHA Issue:  The Preferred Travel Plan Alt 2 ignores the needs for visitor safety, facility protection and economics when the preferred (Alt 2) transportation network is larger than the expected maintenance budget.  This plan appears to invite Forest users to use a network that will have inadequate maintenance on most of its routes.   The resulting deteriorated condition is contradictory to this Standard with regard to issues of safety and resource protection. This Forest’s preferred alternative appears to invite Forest users to use an expanded transportation network that will not have adequate maintenance on most of its routes, which is certain to contain safety hazards and create additional resource impacts. 

BHA Issue:  We object to the concept that this DEIS does not identify roads for decommissioning and will require yet another NEPA process before initiating any decommissioning(DEIS summary page 1).   Road closure prescriptions are connected actions to this travel plan effort and must be displayed in this process.  An analogy is a timber sale NEPA decision that states logging will occur, but the silvicultural treatment prescriptions will require a separate NEPA decision.  Given the size of a separate  NEPA task, it is unlikely many roads affected by this travel plan will have proper treatment if a separate NEPA process is required.  

The pubic cannot assess how effective a closure might be in both restricting motorized travel, but also whether a roadway will serve as a hunter conduit, thus reducing the effectiveness of big game security. 

Without decommissioning the merely “closed”  roads is contradictory to watershed and soils objectives, as they remain as substantial risks to failure or chronic bleeding sediment  We believe most year-long closed roads should be decommissioned, unless there is an ongoing or scheduled project.  Cost of decommissioning is less than properly maintaining a “closed” road over a short few years.   Decommissioned roads will also have less sediment, less risk to failure, far fewer motorized violations, less fragmentation of wildlife habitat and will no longer serve as effective conduits of hunters and others into secure elk security areas. 

BHA Issue:  Preventing or enforcing illegal and renegade travel on roads simply gate closed to motorized use is also difficult to enforce, as they are easy conduits for motorized vehicles, even if a gate or other single closure device is in place.  They could intersect other motorized routes which allow motorized users to physically access a otherwise “stored” road.  Stored roads are easy conduits to enable non-motorized hunters easy access into otherwise secure big game habitats.  By serving as walking, mountain biking or horse travel conduits,  closed  roads reduce the effectiveness of elk security.  We request all roads proposed for “closure” be instead planned for decommissioning unless a scheduled project needing the road is on the planned project schedule, and that the road use be conditional on decommissioning once the project is completed.

We request that specific road treatments be identified for each road segment included as a “closed’ road. 

4a. Road management will be implemented to at least maintain big game habitat capability and

hunting opportunity. To provide for a first week bull elk harvest that does not exceed 40 percent

of the total bull harvest, roads will be managed during the general big game hunting season to

maintain open road densities with the following limits.  (table)


The existing hiding cover to open road density ratio should be determined over a large geographic area,

such as a timber sale analysis area, a third order drainage, or an elk herd unit.

4a (response)One out of 6 herd units currently meet Standard 4(a) (DEIS Summary p 30).

BHA Issue:  At least one Travel Plan alternative “to address this situation” must include proposed  motorized restrictions to meet this standard. There is no DEIS discussion describing what motorized transportation network existed when the Helena Forest Plan was initially approved in 1986, nor how close the Divide was to meeting the elk security standard at that time of initial plan implementation.  Did previous project decisions since the 1986 Plan approval include timber sales, special use permits and transportation decisions properly address how these decisions address meeting Standard 4A? Or did the failure to address in these project decisions cumulatively aggravate the present depleted elk security situation?  If so, then why should the Forest propose or be permitted to now  “kick the can down the road” by proposing a more lenient elk security standard  instead of correcting the cumulative effects of previous Forest Service decisions that took the Forest further away from meeting the elk security standard? 

BHA Issue:  The 4a effects discussion inappropriately relies on an assumed adoption proposed elk security amendment that has not benefited from public review or comment.   It appears this reliance predisposes the elk amendment decision as necessary without Alternative elk security amendments being proposed.   Relying on a 20+ year old untested “Hillis Paradigm) as the basis for an elk security amendment ignores (1) use of 20 years of elk security research conducted  since the late 1980s and 2) caution by the authors of the Hillis Paradigm paper that  it was developed for use on west side heavily vegetated landscapes and is not applicable to other areas.  In addition, the Helena’s acknowledgement that forest vegetation is thinning due to insects and disease lends even more doubt that the Hillis Paradigm is appropriate for a naturally thinner vegetative pattern with larger natural openings and a thinning vegetative condition and trend. Why were no other potential elk vulnerability standards using more recent science neither analyzed nor proposed?

We also object that the bulk of seasonal closures related to 4a will begin October 15 rather than Sept 1 as recommended by Eastside Biologists, and now generally accepted as necessary to reduce displacement to private lands.

4b. Elk calving grounds and nursery areas will be closed to motorized vehicles during peak use by elk. Calving is usually in late May through mid-June and nursery areas are used in late June through July.

BHA Issue:  Elk calving grounds and nursery areas have not been mapped nor addressed as how this Travel Plan protects these as directed (DEIS p 256) in the Forest Plan.  There is no indication nor documentation the Forest used available knowledge or data in determining where calving and nursery areas are known to occur.  Did the Forest consult or specifically request such calving or nursery site specific information from MDFWP or local forest users?   We are certain that some such information is available, but this Standard is dismissed with the above blanket response.  Calving areas are usually associated with certain elevations and openings or thinner canopies, and nursery areas are commonly associated with wetter or mesic meadow habitats.  Even if there is some variability in specific use areas from year to year, known areas “will be closed during peak use”.   Even minor human use during key use times likely displaces elk from these biologically preferred areas.  The Forest Service routinely  has road or route closures for wet road conditions, snowmobiling conflicts, avalanche hazards, and even winter ranges, even though conditions favorable to those conflicts do not occur each and every year.  This Standard requires that this travel plan project close such known calving and nursery areas during the expected elk use times.  If the Forest cannot assimilate and apply site specific known calving and nursery information, it is appropriate to close all associated habitat types and conditions favorable to calving and nursery until such elk use maps can be developed.  In addition, prior and existing motorized use may have displaced elk from their traditional calving or nursery areas therefore likely habitats or previously used calving and nursery areas must be given priority for removing motorized uses.

BHA Issue:  Christensen, et al (1993) state that key summer range elements are “Wet drainage heads, saddles, riparian habitats, shadowed draws with cool air movement, and wet meadows are some examples of special features. In many areas these features support a disproportionate level of elk use and contribute significantly to overall elk use of a larger area. Generally, these sites are highly desirable for forage, water, temperature regulation, movement, or a combination.  Such sites should be recognized and protected in prescriptions that deal with elk summer range (emphasis added).”   Because the Helena indicates they do not have more refined calving and nursery areas identified site specifically, all proposed motorized routes must be screened for the above habitat  features and closed during late spring and summer to comply with Standard 4b.

DEIS Summary p 38. “Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks data indicate that elk populations in the Divide landscape are either at or near population objectives of the Montana Elk Plan (2004) for the last several years for most of the HDs; or that management challenges are only partially habitat related. That is, elk security is adequate in many HDs. The FP standard is not an accurate indicator of elk security.”

BHA Issue:  Many of the FWP Hunting Districts included in the Travel Plan area are composed of substantial percentage of private lands closed to most public hunters.  Although these private lands defacto serve as hunting security, it is inappropriate to construe that elk security is adequate on the Forest proper.  The Forest, to meet its responsibility for land stewardship and public land hunting, is responsible for providing adequate elk security within the boundaries of the Forest.  The analysis of current elk security conditions do not convey that the current elk security definition is “outdated” as stated in the DEIS (Summary p 37), but simply that the Helena Forest has not managed the transportation network to provide enough elk security.   Proposing to adopt a 20 year old untested Hillis Paradigm as the appropriate elk security science is unjustified and unprofessional. 

BHA Issue: In addition we challenge the facts concluding that all is well with elk in the Divide.  What is the actual bull/cow ratio in these hunting districts relative to FWP elk objectives, especially when only public land is considered?  Are all Forest elk populations in the travel planning area above FWP objective?  What proportion of the Divide Travel Plan area elk stay on the Forest throughout the hunting season or and what proportion get pushed to private lands closed to the general hunting public?   What concurrence did the Forest receive from MDFWP that all elk herds in the Travel Plan Area meet elk objectives established by MDFWP?   

DEIS Summary p 38. “In conclusion, Forest Plan big game standard #4a, inaccurately depicts the nature of elk security in the Divide landscape, is insensitive to changing road densities, and places unnecessary and impractical constraints on travel management. Meanwhile, the more recently developed elk security area methodology provides a reasonably accurate picture of elk security across the landscape, is responsive to proposed changes in open road patterns, and correctly directs management to areas that need further attention.

BHA Issue:  We dispute that hunting security “insensitive to changing road densities” and is less important because elk numbers are at or above objective n some hunting districts.  Lyon (1963) long ago established the relationship of road density to elk habitat use.   Our BHA hunters find elk moving to private lands even during the archery season as a result of dissected or fragmented habitats,  hunting pressure and disturbance from excessive motorized access.

BHA Issue:  The Forest has failed to document the “inaccuracy” of the nature of elk security as expressed in the current elk security standard.   Why was this Standard the best available science when adopted (with supporting published papers)when the Forest Plan was developed but is now inaccurate?  How is the Hillis Paradigm more accurate, given it was developed for heavily vegetated continuous canopy conditions and the authors caution about its applicability elsewhere?    We strongly disagree with these conclusions.  We also disagree that 4a places “unnecessary and impractical constrains on travel management”  Given that the Helena has presented Alternative 3 as a viable alternative demonstrates the Helena could easily make progress in meeting the 4a standard without being “unnecessary and impractical”.  There is no analysis nor concurrence by the Hillis Paradigm authors that this methodology is applicable to the Helena National Forest vegetative or topographic conditions.  There is no discussion of other elk security methodology in this DEIS  that may be more applicable to Helena conditions.  We have listed a few of the more recent elk security related papers which should have been analyzed and addressed as part of any elk security amendment process that are more current than the 20+ year old Hillis Paradigm.  The evidence that substantial numbers of elk move onto private lands early in hunting seasons demonstrates that current elk security is inadequate in the Divide Travel Plan area.

BHA Issue: The DEIS fails to acknowledge the importance of on-Forest elk and elk carcasses to TES listed grizzly bears, soon-to- be listed wolverine, other sensitive species and other large carnivores as well some birds of prey.   Retaining large numbers of elk on the Forest during most of the year also provides retention of this important prey/food base for these species that otherwise follow the prey/food to private lands where potential conflicts with livestock and other private land uses are higher.  Such important connection of elk to other species must be evaluated in the biological assessment for these listed species, and must weigh heavily on selection of a final alternative.  We request an analysis of the connectedness between the retention of elk on the Forest and the benefits to the grizzly bears, wolverines, other large carnivores and some birds of prey.  

4f. Enforcement is a shared responsibility.  Enforcement needs will be coordinated with the MDFWP.

4f The Helena suggests that travel planning meetings with FWP resulted in coordination discussions between both agencies. Implementation of the travel plan will be coordinated with FWP post decision and prior to and during implementation.

BHA Issue:  Enforcement of any travel plan has and will continue to be a major issue affecting both resources as well as non-motorized users.  Past experience by our members is large scale frustration with the lack of effective enforcement of current and past Helena Forest Travel Plans.  Motorized closures are regularly breached understating the negative effects of motorized uses on natural resources and non-motorized Forest users. Violators are rarely prosecuted.   We request the NEPA process document the historic and realistically expected non-compliance of this proposed travel plan and project the effects of expected non-compliance throughout  the  NEPA resource effects analysis.  We request FEIS documentation of historical recorded travel plan related motorized violation complaints compared to convictions or bond forfeitures resulting from these complaints.

BHA Issue:  It is imperative to significantly reduce travel plan non-compliance.  It is imperative that travel planning decisions assess and document enforceability of each road system treatment  before deciding on the transportation network.  Trailhead locations, intersections of non-motorized and motorized routes, vegetative cover type along motorized routes are some key analysis features that should be considered before a motorized network is developed. “Implementation of the travel plan will be coordinated with FWP post decision and prior to and during implementation”  does not assure an enforceable transportation network.   Waiting to engage enforcement expertise until after the travel plan decisions have been made makes enforcement more difficult if not impossible.  We do not believe the intent of this standard is met if enforcement coordination does not take place prior to decisions.  Therefore we request field level enforcement personnel of both FS and FWP be directly engaged and submit site specific recommended enforcement considerations well before a final decision has been made.  According to our research, FWP enforcement agents have not been consulted to date on site specific proposal.

BHA Issue:  Loop trails are known to lead to considerably more motorized use with expected higher maintenance costs and resulting in greater conflict with resource objectives, higher maintenance costs in an era of declining maintenance budgets, and non-motorized users.  If existing user created routes are considered for adoption as part of the loop, it is doubtful if these user created routes meet Forest trail standards for watershed protection nor riparian protection.  Have each of these proposed routes been assessed whether they can be brought to FSH trail standard?  How will resource protection, including INFISH standards, water quality laws including impaired watersheds be assured until these routes  are brought up to these standards?  Proper trails grades, drainage features, stream crossing structures and location are all requirements when constructing a new trail.  We object to not having these features in place when adopting a user created route.  Declining budgets will likely mean timely relocation or reconstruction to meet trail standards will not occur.  Only the continued or increased use and adverse resource impacts will realistically occur. We object to adoption of user created routes until they are reconstructed or relocated to protect watershed or riparian values.  Have trail condition surveys been completed on user created routes proposed for adoption, and if so, we request the trail specific display of anticipated work needed to bring them up to FSH trail standards? 

4h. The Forest Road Management Program will be developed in conjunction with MFWP and interested groups or individuals

BHA Issue:  “Developed in conjunction with MDFWP” requires all aspects of FWP responsibilities be engaged in all aspects of travel planning.  This includes enforcement, wildlife, fisheries and would require concurrence with the elk security amendment on which this travel plan is dependent.  We find that this “development in conjunction” has not occurred and therefore the process does not follow Forest Plan direction.

Fisheries Standards

1. Maintain quality water and habitat for fish by coordinating Forest activities and by direct habitat improvement (see Forest Wide Standards for riparian)

In Alternative 2 the DEIS p 204 alledges that fish habitat conditions would be maintained or improved by closing only 13% of high risk roads.  However this alternative increases risk to fisheries by opening high risk roads  in 3 sub watersheds. Furthermore, 5 subwatersheds would have an increase in stream crossings of previously closed roads, thus putting their fisheries and downstream fisheries at risk.

BHA Issue:  We object to concluding Alternative 2 meets Forest Plan direction when high risk roads are opened to motorized use.  We also object to adopting user created routes without a site specific analysis of their potential adverse effect on fisheries habitat is irresponsible and in conflict with this standard.  Also adopting routes that will require reconstruction, relocation or heavy maintenance with expectations of a lower facility budget is irresponsible and not in compliance with this standard.  We simply do not believe it is reasonable that adopted trails will be reconstructed, relocated or have heavy maintenance given the expected budget.  Each year that such trail work is not completed means fish habitat is damaged from bleeding sediment and unimproved stream crossings.   Elsewhere in this document, the Forest states that available budgets will be prioritized on heavily used primary roads, acknowledging that backcountry and user created motorized trails will not receive necessary facility maintenance, reconstruction or relocation.

The Forest Plan directs that instream activities should allow for maximum protection of spring and fall spawning habitats.

BHA Issue:  INFISH Standards provide direction for roads within 300 feet of bull trout and WST streams, however, such specific route segments within this 300 foot distance are not displayed, nor resolution of the direction specified.  Also the sediment analysis must include all active channel crossing as delivery points, not just stream crossings.

Watershed Guidance Standards

3. A project which causes excessive water pollution, undesirable water yield, soil erosion, or site deterioration will be corrected where feasible, or the project will be re-evaluated or terminated.

BHA Issues:  Adopting a user created motorized route is indeed a “project” because the adoption of a previously illegitimate route is then classified as a designated route facility with assumptions about future maintenance which will have potential adverse impacts, depending on soils, location, and design for the facility.  To meet this standard, any user created route proposed for inclusion in the transportation network requires an on site analysis, including a site condition survey on potential fisheries habitat effects before being adopted. We find that proposed adoption of user created trails without site specific analysis as to how these routes meet resource concerns are met in violation of Executive Order 11644, which states “Sec. 9. Special Protection of the Public Lands. (a) Notwithstanding the provisions of Section 3 of this Order, the respective agency head shall, whenever he determines that the use of off-road vehicles will cause or is causing considerable adverse effects on the soil, vegetation, wildlife, wildlife habitat or cultural or historic resources of particular areas or trails of the public lands, immediately close such areas or trails to the type of off-road vehicle causing such effects, until such time as he determines that such adverse effects have been eliminated and that measures have been implemented to prevent future recurrence.

BHA Issue:  We object to adoption of user created of routes because they have disproportionately greater conflict with resource objectives, higher maintenance costs in an era of declining maintenance budgets, and conflicts with non-motorized users.  If existing user created routes are considered for adoption, it is doubtful these user created routes meet Forest trail standards for watershed protection nor riparian protection.  Trails grades, drainage features, stream crossing structures and location are all considerations when constructing a new trail( FS Trail handbook), but are not features considered or incorporated when adopting a user created route.  Declining budgets will likely mean suggested relocation or reconstruction to meet trail standards will not occur.  Only the use and associated resource impacts from that continued use will realistically occur. To comply with EO 11644 we object to adoption of user created routes until they are reconstructed or relocated to protect watershed or riparian values, and meet trail or road design standards as well as water quality standards ..

Soils Guidance Standards

1. In accordance with NFMA, RPA, and Multiple Use Sustained Yield Act, all management activities will be planned to sustain site productivity. During project analysis, ground disturbing activities will be reviewed and needed mitigating actions prescribed.

BHA Issue:  Adoption of a user created route is defacto “construction” as it is added as-is to the transportation network .  This standard says that needed mitigation actions will be prescribed.   Those needs can only be identified if site specific analysis of each route leg has a soil related onsite visit prior to adoption.  Routes adopted in sensitive soils, steep lands or located vertically on a slope are almost impossible to mitigate soils, and only at great expense.  According to the Forest, those needed funds are not adequate and not projected to increase.   We find it irresponsible and in violation of this Standard to adopt user created routes without a detailed analysis of how feasible resource mitigation may be. 

2. Areas of decomposed granite soils will be identified and erosion control measures planned prior to any ground disturbing activities.

BHA Issue:  Continued motorized use on motorized routes is a ground disturbing activity, and therefore subject to the requirement to identify these route segments and plan erosion control measures before these routes are included in the open motorized route network.  The DEIS response above indicates the Forest has not given special attention to route selection based on sensitive soils.  We believe at least one alternative should analyze closing most non-essential routes in sensitive soils to motorized use to meet Forest Plan direction, including this Standard.

3. To reduce sedimentation associated with management activities, the highly sensitive granitic soils, which cover about 20 percent of the Forest, will have first priority for soil erosion control.

BHA Issue:  We fail to see how “self maintaining” a closed motorized route meets this standard, especially in granitics.  Granitics are extremely erosive and rather extensive methods are applied to insure erosion is minimized even on closed roads.  Any closed road in granitics cannot be simply closed in its current condition and assumed to not continue to bleed sediment nor accelerate erosion on disturbed areas.  To meet this standard any closed route in granitics requires state-of-the-art erosion control measures be highly prioritized during implemention.

Forestwide Road Standards

1. Road construction and reconstruction will be the minimum density, cost, and standard necessary for the intended need, user safety, and resource protection.

BHA Issue:  The Divide travel plan proposes to adopt or maintain open travel routes far in excess of realistic budget projections to maintain or reconstruct.  It is realistic to assume that with declining budgets that any reconstruction will be minimal and road maintenance will decline.  As a result the Forest must project that compliance with the Streamside Management Zone law, Water Quality Best Management Pracitces for Montana Forests, USDA National Best Management Practices for Water Quality Management on National Forest Land will not be met with the planned transportation network.   To meet these laws, no additions to the transportation system can be adopted, the final decision must reduce the transportation network to the quanity that provides for proper reconstruction and maintenance.

Forestwide Road Management Standards

1.  The Helena National Forest will generally be open to vehicles except for roads, trails, or areas that may be restricted. (See Forest Visitor Map for specific information.) The Forest Road Management Program will be used to review, evaluate, and implement the goals and standards of the management areas in the Forest Plan with regard to road, trail, and area wide motorized vehicle use.

This standard was amended based on the 2001 TriState Off-Highway Vehicle Decision (see Summary of Forest Plan Amendment20 at the beginning of appendix A.

BHA Issue:  “ In all alternatives, access to the Helena National Forest will generally be open to vehicles except for roads and trails that may be restricted as defined in the road and trail management objective.”  This statement does not reflect the Tristate Off-Highway Vehicle Decision that motorized use will be restricted to roads and trails and motorized travel off designated routes will not be permitted.  The Helena Standard (before amendment) does not meet National direction.  Amendment 20 direction is ignored when the statement is made that the Helena “Forest will be generally be open to vehicles”.

4. Enforcement of the Road Management Program will be a high priority. Weekend patrolling, signing, gating, obliterating unnecessary roads, and public education will be used to improve enforcement. Enforcement will be coordinated with the MDFWP and other State and local agencies.

BHA Issue:   The effectiveness of enforcement of travel plan restrictions has and will continue to be a major issue affecting both resources as well as non-motorized users.  Past experience by our members is large scale frustration with the lack of effective enforcement of current and past restrictions in the Divide Travel Plan area.   Closures are regularly breached understating the negative effects on natural resources and non-motorized Forest users. Violators are rarely prosecuted.   We request the NEPA process document the realistically expected non-compliance of this travel plan and calculate this expected non-compliance through out  the  NEPA resource effects analysis.

BHA Issue: A Travel planning decision process  must incorporate  enforceability before deciding on the transportation network.  Trailhead locations, intersections of non-motorized and motorized routes, vegetative cover type along motorized routes are some key analysis features that should be considered before a motorized network is developed.  Waiting to engage enforcement expertise until after the travel plan decisions have been made makes enforcement more difficult if not impossible.   We request enforcement of both FS and FWP be directly engaged and submit recommended enforcement considerations well before a final decision has been made.

Forestwide Road Maintenance Standards

1. Roads will be maintained in accordance with direction provided in FSH 7709.15 (Transportation System Maintenance Handbook) and will be at a level commensurate with the need for the following operational objectives: resource protection, road investment protection, user safety, user comfort, and travel efficiency.

BHA Issue:   This standard does not say this standard will be met only on higher use roads or where resource damage has been identified.  Simply, with inadequate maintenance budget, the road network must shrink to a level commensurate with the maintenance budget. 

Forestwide Trail Standards

1. Trail management, such as trail standards, maintenance schedules, funding, trail use, construction, and reconstruction, will follow the guidance in Trails Management Handbook, FSH 2309.18.

BHA Issue:  “ Maintenance dollars are dispersed annually and are generally directed to higher use roads and to specific areas where there is a need identified to prevent resource damage. The funding we receive is never adequate to cover the cost of maintenance to maintain roads to a suitable standard. We do not anticipate an increase in funding and in fact anticipate a decrease in maintenance funding.”(DEIS)  We fail to see how the Helena can meet this standard under Alternative 2 when the above Helena quote describes the bleak funding outlook.  To meet this standard, the amount of motorized trail routes need to be substantially reduced in this travel plan.  Alternative 3 moves the Divide Travel Plan area in a responsible direction regarding this standard.  The Forest is ignoring this standard when it proposes to adopt user created trails it well acknowledges it will not be able to FSH 2309.18  direction. Why was an alternative not developed that included a minimum road and motorized trail budget that was commensurate with anticipated maintenance budget?

3. Trail construction/reconstruction will be designed and accomplished to be compatible with the recreation settings and management area goals.

BHA Issue:   “Maintenance dollars are dispersed annually and are generally directed to higher use roads and to specific areas where there is a need identified to prevent resource damage. The funding we receive is never adequate to cover the cost of maintenance to maintain roads to a suitable standard. We do not anticipate an increase in funding and in fact anticipate a decrease in maintenance funding.”  We fail to see how the Helena can meet FS trail standards when the above Helena quote describes the funding outlook.  To address the insufficient budget, the amount of motorized trail routes need to be substantially reduced to a level where the FS Trail standards can be met.  To do otherwise is not meeting user safety nor resource protection needs.

Recreation Management

RM1. Design, construct, and operate recreation facilities, including trails and dispersed sites, in a manner that does not retard or prevent attainment of the Riparian Management Objectives and avoids adverse effects on inland native fish. Complete watershed analysis prior to construction of now recreation facilities in Riparian Habitat Conservation Areas within priority watersheds. For existing recreation facilities inside Riparian Habitat Conservation Areas, assure that the facilities or use of the facilities would not prevent attainment of Riparian Management Objectives or adversely affect inland native fish. Relocate or close recreation facilities where Riparian Management Objectives cannot be met or adverse effects on inland native fish cannot be avoided.

BHA Issue:  The DEIS fails to adequately address how the proposed travel plan insures trails located in or adjacent to riparian areas are meeting the Riparian Management Objectives or Recreation Management Standard 1.  Without Forest Service site specific analysis and data including a trail condition survey, we cannot address individual routes.  However, prior to adoption of a trail network, this Standard requires before completion of this travel plan that the Forest Service complete a site specific analysis of existing trail routes, as well as proposed adoption of user created routes as it pertains to meeting Riparian Management Objectives.  The presence of a trail in the riparian area is subject to erosion, trail widening, wet conditions, compaction, displacement of wildlife from a key habitat and subjects the fish population to heavier fishing pressure.  In some cases these streams could support bull trout or westslope cutthroat, including spawning activity, for which a 300 foot RHCA would apply.  A motorized trail encourages dispersed camping, most commonly in a Riparian Habitat Conservation Area, and therefore is subject to site specific designation or other enforceable controls to meet Riparian Management objectives.

BHA Issue:  The proposal to allow off route travel of up to 300 feet from a motorized route for camping invites and appears to legitimize threats to the Riparian Management  Objectives.  How does the Helena propose to assure that future or existing campsites don’t threaten RMOS?  

Appendix C  Road and Trail detail by Alternative

It is required that all motorized routes in Inventoried Roadless Areas be analyzed for their impacts on each special roadless area attributes as proposed in each Alternative.  It is required by the Travel Planning Rule and Executive Orders that impact of travel plans on Roadless Areas be described by Alternative, including the number of miles of motorized routes by type by Alternative.

BHA Issue:  Continental Divide National Scenic Trail.  CDNST National Management direction discourages motorized use with some exceptions.  One constraint on that direction is that such type of motorized use must have occurred prior to trail designation which occurred in 1978.  Therefore, unless the Forest can demonstrate that the trail had the same type of motorized use in 1978, it cannot be allowed now.  1978 is prior to ATVs so only motorcycles could be considered to meet this direction and only if they do not impair the purpose of the Trail.  The CDNST trail for the most part is along ridgetops which is the most adverse location to elk security as it allows motorized hunters to access the drainage heads which are preferred habitat for elk.  Motorized use along this trail system disproportionately displaces elk from drainage heads as their preferred summer habitats.   Therefore the only treatment of the Trail as proposed in Alternative 3 is appropriate.  However, eliminating all motorized use should be considered as best meeting CDNST direction.

DEIS Appendix D  Cumulative Effects

DEIS Appendix D- Proposed Elk Security Amendment

The Helena has some quality backcountry such as the Scapegoat and parts of the Elkhorn mountains.  However, most of the few remaining secure, undeveloped parts of the Helena within the Divide Travel Plan area are unroaded simply because they are overly steep, rocky and otherwise unproductive for both timber and elk.  Studies of elk habitat selection document that elk, like people, select for gentler terrain and spend little time on terrain over 30% slopes. However, much of the lower, gentler, and often most productive elk habitats of the Helena have been roaded, have been laced by ORV routes, or both.  In the last 25 years the problem has been exacerbated by a proliferation of off road vehicle routes, both authorized and unauthorized renegade routes.  In addition the frequent and extensive violations of existing motorized restrictions render much of the Helena’s most productive elk habitats seriously compromised, particularly when need to serve as secure habitats during the hunting seasons.

The Helena’s elk security habitat condition now is largely dissected and often marginally or insufficiently small during both the archery and general hunting seasons.  This deteriorated security condition has adverse impacts on elk security now and likely will have even worse effects in the future.  Hunters on the Helena are already experiencing major displacement of elk from public lands onto private lands, where general hunter access is most often denied.  This is a problem not unique to the Helena, as it is already a documented phenomenon on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge, the Gallatin and the Lewis and Clark Forests.  An example of the  behavioral response of elk to human disturbance was well documented in Montana by Grigg (2007), who documented elk moving from the roaded Taylor Fork to the private Sun Ranch early in the archery season.  Similar movements have been documented elseswhere, including the Bitterroot National Forest.   Movements early in the archery season are also occurring within this travel plan analysis area.  In addition, mature bulls, a favorite hunter pursuit, are increasingly a smaller percentage of the herd due to lack of security on public lands.  A mature bull component is important to breeding and breeding timing that results in calves mature enough to survive their first winter.   Without protecting and enhancing hunting security, the existing 5 week general season will trend toward more permits-only hunting or shortened seasons, or both.   The Elkhorns area, for example, has mature bulls, but also a very limited number of permits.

BHA Issue: Control of herd numbers can only occur with hunting if cow elk remain on public lands throughout the hunting season to facilitate adequate harvest.  Displacement of cow elk to private lands during the hunting season is already occurring and seriously reduces effective population control capability by MDFWP.  This situation of elk displacement from the Forest to private lands explains much of why some elk herd units are above objective, rather than the conclusion by the Forest that present security is adequate.  The response by responsible land managers to these elk related issues must be to enhance, rather than lessen the quantity and quality of secure elk habitat, especially in the Divide Travel Plan area.    We believe that Helena land managers have ample opportunity as well as the obligation to restore large scale elk security areas. 

BHA Issue: The importance of elk security during archery seasons cannot be understated.   Often public land elk have been displaced to private lands by archery hunting activities even before general elk seasons have begun as documented on the MDFWP studies on the Gallatin National Forest (Grigg, 2007).   Furthermore, Forest Service studies of elk in the Blue Mountains of Oregon (Wisdom, et al, 2005) have documented by telemetry under carefully controlled conditions that elk are displaced as far as .93 miles by the presence of motorized vehicles.  Simply, all road closures related to wildlife habitat must commence no later than September 1.

BHA Issue:  The Helena has inappropriately chosen to focus on the Hillis Paradigm as guidance to managing elk security on the Forest in the future, under a proposed Forest Plan Elk Security Amendment.  However, the values used and its application to the Helena is unvalidated and lacks scientific scrutiny.  This concept lacks any scientific validation as to the adequacy of the patch size (250 acres) or the distance from motorized routes (1/2 mile).   The Hillis Paradigm, never validated, was developed for Westside Forest conditions, primarily the Lolo.  The Lolo’s elk habitats are for the most part, much more continuous canopy, and thicker, multistoried canopies often with a dense, high underbrush understory of such shrubs as alder, mountain maple, and ninebark.   By contrast, the Helena forests are generally discontinuous, are dominated by single story, open, dry forests with very low understories.  The Lolo’s terrain is also generally much steeper and dissected.  We conclude it is inappropriate use of elk vulnerability science to adopt the Hillis Paradigm without specific validation for the Helena.  

The ½ mile-250 acre patch criteria discounts the reality that significant numbers of elk hunters do indeed walk more than ½ mile from a road (a 10 minute walk on easy terrain) and would displace from a 250 acre patch ( about 1/3 square mile) in less than an hour.  We believe if you tell a serious elk hunter there is a 250 acre patch of unbroken timber habitat only ½ mile from a road, many, if not most, would willingly walk to such “secure” elk habitat.  Blanket application of the  Hillis Paradigm also fails to consider the presence of old roadbeds, trails or gentle terrain common to the Helena which facilitate easier  and quicker travel to a cover patch.  In summary, we conclude the Hillis Paradigm is overly simplistic, unvalidated and inappropriate for the Helena to use as a big game vulnerability standard. 

BHA Issue:   Wisdom (2007) found elk avoiding the presence of off road vehicles up to nearly a mile away.  What validation has occurred to demonstrate that most elk remain in Divide Travel Plan area  cover patches only ½ mile away (Hillis Paradigm) from the presence of motor vehicles during the hunting season?  What has the Helena done to demonstrate the quality of elk security given the terrain features present or lack thereof, vertical relationship of open roads to the cover patch, ease of access by hunters due to open vegetation or old road prisms, or the density of the cover patch?

BHA Issue:  The Forest has acknowledged the Forest is thinning due to insects, disease, and other factors.  The forest canopy is also discontinuous with many natural non-forested openings.  In addition some poor regeneration in previously harvested and thinned forest stands have further reduced large patches of heavy multistoried cover.  Christensen et al (1993) indicate that cover analysis is justified when “Today, detailed analyses of hiding and thermal habitat components are not considered as essential except in habitats with high natural levels of openings or where conifer cover is at a premium”.  Given that the Divide Travel Plan area  fits this description of “high natural natural levels of openings or where conifer cover is at a premium” we request a thorough analysis of hiding and thermal cover as it relates to elk hiding cover.  We would expect that any patch attributable to elk security during hunting season to be examined as to its cover composition.  What criteria is used in describing elk cover and how was it analyzed and applied to each potential cover patch?

BHA Issue:  Forests are cautioned by elk biologists to use site specific knowledge with state agency personnel in using models such as the Hillis Paradigm.  Christensen, et al (1993) urges “In discussions with biologists in Idaho and Montana, there appears to be a gradient from west to east regarding the significance of cover in this equation. In northern Idaho, it appears that open road density, hunter numbers, and topographic roughness are the major considerations (Unsworth and others 1993). Cover is so ubiquitous that security can be controlled with road management alone. As you move east into Montana and over the Continental Divide, cover considerations become more important because cover is less abundant and less contiguous. It is extremely important for forest biologists to work with their State counterparts in developing criteria for security areas, including their size, extent, distance from roads, and vegetative characteristics. Data from radio telemetry studies are the best source for developing such criteria”.  Therefore we request the Helena provide the radio telemetry data or other validation of the Hillis Paradigm for use in the Divide Travel Plan area.

 BHA Issue: Most experienced elk hunters know where the remaining elk security is within the Divide Travel Plan area.   Any patch of timber less than a mile from a road or ATV trail will have hunters in that habitat nearly every day during the season.   It is our estimate that a solo hunter can hunt thru a 250 acre patch of cover (1/3 square mile) in less than an hour and likely move most or all elk from this cover patch, especially when other cover is not contiguous to the 250 acre patch.  How many times and at what frequency is an elk herd disturbed before it seeks private land?   Based on the eastside forest Grigg study, this threshold occurred in the Taylor Fork during the archery season and before general season even began.  As the Forest chooses to manage elk security at minimum threshold levels, elk increasingly are crowded into these remaining “secure” areas, which concentrates hunting pressure into these areas as well.  What is the effect of crowding both elk and hunters into the same “secure” areas?  In addition, what is the hunting experience for those hunters who value or seek solitude, and do not seek to compete for getting to these secure areas before other hunters?  What validation has the Helena done to demonstrate that elk stay within a 250 acre isolated patch when hunters seek elk in the same patch? 

BHA Issue:  A valuable measure of successful elk security on the Helena is whether the majority of elk stay on the Forest thru the general hunting season, or until driven to private land due to snow depth on the Forest.   Simply, there are far too many motorized routes open on Helena, with little attention to insuring there are sufficient numbers of large blocks of secure elk habitat on productive lands within the Helena.  The open nature of the Helena National Forest strongly suggests that the Forest should manage for non-motorized landscapes, rather than patches of cover at minimum distances from open roads to be successful in retaining elk on the Forest throughout the hunting season..

BHA Issue: Given the natural openings, declining density of many forest patches,  Backcountry Hunters and Anglers advocates the Helena establish 25,000-50,000 acre blocks of good elk habitat free of motorized routes during both the archery and general hunting seasons.  This size of motor-free block of secure habitat is necessary to assure the center of such a block is at least 3 miles from the nearest open road. We advocate that all Roadless Areas be non-motorized, and can serve as core areas for which these larger security areas can be assimilated by closing and in many cases decommissioning roads and motorized routes.

BHA Issue:  We believe the coordination of road management in this Travel Plan must extend beyond the immediate Travel Plan area.  For example, a open, surfaced road approaches the Bison creek area from the south via the Deerlodge NF, which dissects an otherwise large security block including the Little Blackfoot.  Hunters are able to access the ridge separating Bison Creek headwaters and the Little Blackfoot drainage easily this way. 

Also the Kaeding Ridge is key to how elk can use the Spotted Dog WMA.  Closing all motorized routes along the Kaeding ridge complex during hunting season and restricting snowmobile use would allow elk to move freely toward Spotted Dog WMA without unnecessary risk of displacement to other late fall habitats on private lands.

Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers urges the Forest to improve this Travel Plan and Amendment process by resolving issues we have raised in this comment letter.


s/greg munther

Greg Munther, Co-chairman

Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers             

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