Now in its final stages of planning, the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest has made clear what they intend to do with the 252,000-acre landscape of wild, roadless lands that most know as the Great Burn.
On November 28th, the NPCNF released their draft Record of Decision, Final Environmental Impact Statement, and Draft Final Plan that will impact both Idaho and Montana’s wild lands and wildlife, and all of us who rely on these things, for the next 20-30 years.
For decades, this high-alpine area has been managed with an eye on habitat protections, quiet recreation, and solitude - all pillars of BHA’s mission and values. It’s one of the largest remaining unroaded areas in the Lower 48, and we'd like to keep it that way.
However, the newly released plan weakens or removes habitat protections, threatens important and imperiled species, and will increase road and trail development for both motorized and mechanized recreation in sensitive environments.
Our Montana Chapter weighed in during plan scoping in 2019/2020, and are disappointed that many of our comments related to habitat protections, wild lands, and quiet recreation were overruled. Of particular concern is the removal of protections of some 32,000 acres of recommended Wilderness in the Great Burn area, and the increase in both off-trail and on-trail motorized and mechanized use.
Much of the Montana side of the Great Burn has been recommended for Wilderness designation by the Lolo National Forest (LNF) since the 1982 Lolo Forest Plan. Yet this draft decision fails to adequately protect this wild landscape on the Idaho side, and will likely make protections more difficult to achieve on the adjacent LNF lands in Montana. This concerns us, especially considering that the entire landscape is not only deserving of Wilderness designations, but would be Wilderness today if it weren't for a 1988 presidential veto. We should not allow this Forest Plan to squander the opportunity to designate this special area as Wilderness.
Additionally, this area offers vital habitat for, among other species, the vulnerable mountain goat, a species cherished by hunters and non-hunters alike. Our native mountain goat populations are hurting in both Idaho and Montana, and hunting permits and opportunities have reflected that. It’s worth noting that the current LNF’s planning process is proposing to appropriately treat mountain goats as a species of special conservation concern, whereas the NPCNF just across the border has kept them off that list, despite population level decreases there too. Worse, NPCNF is proposing changes that will undoubtedly harm mountain goats and their habitat by removing protections and opening more areas - roughly 40,000 acres - to motorized use, including oversnow activity in winter, which has been shown to have a direct, negative impact on mountain goats. This has left us scratching our heads in disappointment.
Relatedly, instead of enforcing current travel management plans and wilderness recommendations, the Forest Service has largely turned a blind eye to illegal motorized use we see today in this area. Successful legal challenges have directed the USFS to enforce these closures, but now, it appears the NPCNF is looking to change the boundaries in a way that will again allow (what has been illegal) motorized use to continue. In other words, they’ll be rewarding illegal activity, something that pains us to witness.
Montana BHA does applaud the inclusion of 11 rivers recommended to the Wild and Scenic Rivers System, amounting to more than 230 miles of protected waterways, including Kelly Creek, an outstanding wild Westslope cutthroat fishery relatively close to our Montana membership. That said, we are disappointed that 77 rivers were determined to be 'not suitable' including the South and North Forks of the Clearwater River.
If you share any of Montana BHA’s concerns, please speak up.
The public has until January 29th to formally object to the new Forest Plan. And while “objections will be accepted only from those who have previously submitted timely specific written comments regarding the proposed forest plan revision during scoping or other designated opportunity for public comment,” it’s important that you make your voice heard regardless of whether you commented in previous planning stages or not.
Please ask the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest to manage the Great Burn in a way that protects the entire wild backcountry of the Hoodoo Roadless Area, ensures that mountain goat populations won’t continue to decline, and takes into account two actions that happened after the NPCNF released their plans, and therefore weren’t appropriately considered: the November 29, 2023 ESA listing of the wolverine and the administration’s December 19, 2023 commitment to protect old growth forests on National Forest lands.