The U.S. Forest Service has increasingly put roads into inventoried roadless areas in Montana and Idaho, according to conservation groups who argue the practice threatens wildlife and rare habitat.
A review of Forest Service records by Idaho-based Friends of the Clearwater found the agency had logged about 18,000 acres of national roadless areas in Idaho and 32,000 acres in Montana in the past decade, despite federal laws designed to protect inventoried roadless forests from development.
Last week, the Helena Hunters and Anglers sued the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest over plans to cut trees in the roadless Jericho Mountain and Lazyman Gulch areas of the Tenmile-South Helena project.
“The reasoning behind the whole idea of protecting roadless areas has been lost,” said Friends of the Clearwater Director Gary MacFarlane, who co-authored the report with Katie Bilodeau. “By definition, I can’t see how a roadless area can be improved by roading.”
The national Roadless Rule was finalized in 2001 to guide Forest Service management of lands that weren’t federal wilderness but still had undeveloped qualities. Idaho crafted its own specific rule in 2006 covering about 9 million roadless acres in its national forests. Montana has about 6 million acres of roadless national forest land.
Both the Friends of the Clearwater report and the Helena legal challenge charge the Forest Service with using a provision of the Roadless Rule to turn it on its head, by permitting roads and intensive development in order to protect forest health.
Helena Hunters and Anglers board member Bill Orsello said the Forest Service in 2018 authorized more than 5,000 acres of logging and related activities, including road reconstruction and 7 miles of new mountain bike trails, within two roadless areas that straddle the Continental Divide in the Helena National Forest. During its 15-year time frame, the Tenmile project would affect more than 17,000 acres in and around inventoried roadless areas.
“After five years of constant participation in the Forest Service process surrounding this project, Helena Hunters filed an objection with the Northern Region last October,” Orsello wrote in an email. “However, that objection was rejected, leaving us with no other course of action but to litigate to protect big game security in the last remaining roadless areas.”
Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest Supervisor Bill Avey said he was disappointed that Helena Hunters and Anglers had decided to sue over the project. The organization had been part of a community collaborative process and attended the field trips and meetings that led to the final decision.
“The roadless piece (of the Tenmile project) is very, very small,” Avey said. “This is a fuels reduction project, not a logging project. The decision was made because it’s where we need to treat the fuels. We have to remove some of that either by hand or mechanical work before treating it with prescribed fire to benefit the landscape and not harm it. And the abundance of standing dead trees there is an imminent hazard to hand crews.”
Avey said he personally hiked and snowshoed through the project area frequently, and that in some parts, nine of every 10 trees was killed by beetles.
“We’re not doing any permanent improvement in inventoried roadless at all,” Avey said.
The problem with that, according to the report authors, is that those treated areas then lose protection in later reviews.
“When the Forest Service revises forest plans, we found a pattern where the agency drops isolated acreage from its roadless inventory and wilderness recommendation process due to evidence of timber harvest,” the report stated. For example, it found the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest in Montana had dropped 69,069 acres of roadless land from its previous 1983 inventory when it revised its forest plan in 2009.
The Friends of the Clearwater report published a long list of roadless area incursions provided by the Forest Service itself. It included examples such as the 2015 Sweetgrass project on the Custer-Gallatin National Forest, where the agency claimed the project would have no significant impact on 47,000 acres of the Absaroka Inventoried Roadless Area. That's in part, it contended, because “past management activities such as timber harvest, vegetation management and fire management have had strong impacts on the natural appearance of the area.”
Its entry on the Tenmile project included comments from the agency noting it has “the potential to cumulatively impact the natural and undeveloped characteristics by causing changes to the scenic qualities within the project area and creating a setting where resource modifications and utilization practices are evident."
"Most of these effects would ultimately be beneficial because they would increase resiliency of forest conditions and reduce the risk of potential negative impacts from wildfire, therefore maintaining the roadless and wilderness qualities that are currently valued by the public," according to the entry.
MacFarlane countered that wildfire was one of the wilderness qualities roadless areas were set aside to continue.
“The Forest Service has started to say we’re logging to reduce fire risk,” McFarlane said. “It’s disingenuous to make the argument. The science isn’t there to show we’re making the forests better by doing that. Really the reason for the logging gets back to providing timber for communities.”
The Forest Service Region 1 office in Missoula responded to requests for comment on the report with a two-sentence email.
“The USDA Forest Service complies with all applicable laws, including, but not limited to, the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule and the National Environmental Policy Act in the execution of projects in and adjacent to Inventoried Roadless Areas,” the statement read. “We welcome the broad diversity of public interests in our evaluation of management actions in these important conservation areas.”
An agency spokesman declined to provide more specific answers to the reports charges of improper stewardship logging. Region 1 covers all the national forests in Montana as well as the Nez Perce-Clearwater and several others in northern Idaho.
MacFarlane said the Forest Service has spent the past decade applying the forest health stewardship exceptions to about two-thirds of the roadless area projects in Montana.
“If the Forest Service was finding it needs to do more stewardship logging, then it needs to redo the rule and do a new environmental impact statement that covers the kinds of logging they’re talking about,” MacFarlane said. “The Roadless Rule was supposed to provide a floor of protection. We’re saying they’re going into the basement now.”