Conservation Groups File Notice of Intent to File Lawsuit Over Flathead Forest Plan

The following press release is from Swan View Coalition, Friends of the Wild Swan and Earthjustice. A copy of the Notice of Intent is here. – mk

Conservationists Challenge Abandonment of Grizzly Bear and Bull Trout Protections In Flathead National Forest

New Plan for Flathead National Forest Could Fragment Wild Habitat for Grizzlies and Discards Longstanding Wildlife Habitat Standards

Kalispell, MT – Two Montana conservation groups have notified the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that a newly revised management plan violates the Endangered Species Act by abandoning longstanding protections for key grizzly bear and bull trout habitat in the Flathead National Forest.

The 2018 Flathead Forest Plan purports to maintain habitat conditions that existed in 2011. However, the plan actually abandons key measures that have protected grizzly bear and bull trout habitat on the Forest for more than two decades, allowing new roadbuilding and wildlife disturbances in formerly secure habitat. Swan View Coalition and Friends of the Wild Swan have notified both agencies that they will file a lawsuit challenging the 2018 Plan’s abandonment of wildlife protections if the agencies do not correct their legal violations within 60 days.

“By abandoning the cap on new roads and eliminating the provisions to remove roads, this new plan harms bull trout and native aquatic life,” said Arlene Montgomery of Friends of the Wild Swan. “When road culverts inevitably fail they dump sediment into streams that will clog spawning beds. The Flathead doesn’t have the budget to maintain its existing road system, so they should be reducing the miles of road on the Forest instead of degrading habitat for wildlife and fish.”

“The Flathead is abandoning road removal, the true habitat restoration it says is helping recover grizzly bears and bull trout,” said Swan View Coalition Chair Keith Hammer. “It is replacing that with road building and logging and trying to call that restoration. We don’t buy it and the science doesn’t support it.”

NEW ROADBUILDING THREATENS HARM TO GRIZZLY BEARS AND BULL TROUT

The Flathead National Forest encompasses 2.4 million acres of public land in northwest Montana, including large areas of public land adjacent to Glacier National Park. The Flathead therefore provides key habitat for the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem population of grizzly bears, whose range extends from the Park southward down the spine of the Northern Rockies, as well as a significant stronghold for the region’s threatened bull trout.

Seminal grizzly bear research in the 1990s demonstrated that the presence of roads in grizzly bear habitat, and the motorized and non-motorized intrusion those roads allow, harm bears’ survival. Researchers found that even roads closed to the public can displace bears from otherwise secure habitat because bears learn to avoid such roads and the roads also facilitate motorized trespass and other human access. Roads also threaten harm to bull trout, because roads and the culverts that come with them can send sediment into the streams where bull trout live.

Recognizing these threats, the Flathead National Forest in 1995 adopted a Forest Plan provision called Amendment 19, which limited the number of roads the Forest Service could maintain in the Flathead. To meet this standard, the Forest Service was required to decommission some existing roads, as well as any new roads it built, through revegetation, culvert removal, and other measures intended to ensure the roads no longer function as either a road or a trail.

NEW PLAN PAVES THE WAY FOR MORE ROAD CONSTRUCTION IN THE BACKCOUNTRY

The new 2018 Forest Plan abandons this approach in favor of a requirement that the Forest Service claims will maintain the habitat security that existed in 2011. This new management direction is less protective of grizzly bears and trout, because in many parts of the Flathead, the Forest Service never achieved the standards and goals set by the 1995 plan and the new plan excuses that failure. The change further ignores broad public support for Amendment 19: fully 98% of public comments the Forest Service received during its planning effort supported retaining Amendment 19’s road decommissioning program.

Also, the new plan does not actually commit to maintaining 2011 conditions. That is because it allows new road construction beyond 2011 levels so long as the Forest Service administratively closes the new roads by placing an inadequate barrier—even just a fallen tree—across the entrance. Such new roads would not be counted against total road limits in the Forest, even though such minimal barriers enable continued ATV and dirt bike use in grizzly habitat.

“This new plan is a stealth attempt to allow harmful new roads in key grizzly bear habitat, just as the Fish and Wildlife Service is talking about removing the Northern Continental Divide’s grizzly bears from the endangered species list,” said Josh Purtle, an attorney in Earthjustice’s Northern Rockies office.
Under the lax new plan, the Forest Service has already planned extensive new roadbuilding in the Flathead Forest. A new project proposed in the Swan Valley would build 60 miles of new roads and retain them on the road system indefinitely. By contrast, the Forest Service built only 3.2 miles of new roads in grizzly bear habitat over 14 years under the former, stronger plan.

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8 thoughts on “Conservation Groups File Notice of Intent to File Lawsuit Over Flathead Forest Plan”

    • Hi Sharon. The Mid-Swan Landscape Restoration and Wildland Urban Interface Project. Here’s the USFS link to the project.

      From the U.S. Forest Service: “Approximately 60 miles of roads would be constructed to implement proposed activities.”

      Also, on November 16, 2018 the Swan View Coalition issued the following Press Advisory, in which they claim that the Flathead National Forest wasn’t being honest in media stories about this project. See below for an example of where a member of the Southwest Crown of the Continent CFLPR collaborative group claims that “The topic of new, permanent roads was never discussed between the SWCC and the Mid-Swan team at any of our meetings. Unfortunately, [Flathead National Forest Supervisor] Chip Weber used some very poorly chosen words when he described the SWCC’s involvement as “crafting/developing” this proposal in recent print media. Many members of the collaborative were just as surprised as you about the new, permanent road additions in the proposal….”

      PRESS ADVISORY – Contact Keith Hammer at the above email address or at 406-253-6536.

      Yesterday, Tamara MacKenzie of the Forest Service’s Region One Landscape Restoration Team announced that the public comment period on the Mid-Swan Landscape Restoration Project “will be extended through December 24. I will be sending out emails and mailers tomorrow.” (tlmackenzie@fs.fed.us ; no official notice has been received by this hour and none has yet been posted on the Mid-Swan Project web page at https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=54853 )

      PLEASE BE ADVISED: at least one member of the Southwest Crown Collaborative, which is credited as having developed the Mid-Swan Proposal, is critical of how Flathead Forest Supervisor Chip Weber characterized the SWCC’s involvement. Luke Lamar of Swan Valley Connections put it this way in the email string below:

      Keith, thanks for sharing your thoughts with the group. As a point of clarification, the SWCC provided constructive criticism and feedback to the Mid-Swan team as they developed this proposal. The topic of new, permanent roads was never discussed between the SWCC and the Mid-Swan team at any of our meetings. Unfortunately, Chip Weber used some very poorly chosen words when he described the SWCC’s involvement as “crafting/developing” this proposal in recent print media. Many members of the collaborative were just as surprised as you about the new, permanent road additions in the proposal and is just one of many topics the SWCC will address in our comments.

      Mr. Lamar’s response was issued in response to Swan View Coalition’s criticism that the Mid-Swan project proposes to build another 60 miles of road in the already over-roaded Swan Valley where the Forest Service now manages former Plum Creek industrial forestry lands along with its long-standing public lands. (See email string below).

      WE ARE ISSUING THIS ADVISORY BECAUSE we are concerned that the public not be left thinking this massive project has already met with the approval of the SWCC, which it has not according to Mr. Lamar. As I wrote yesterday to Mr. Lamar in the email string below, “I hate to think how many people might write in in support of the Mid-Swan proposal because they believe in collaborative solutions and think that the proposal has already passed muster with the SWCC so it must be A-OK.”

      It is unfortunate the collaborative nature of this proposal was apparently mischaracterized at the outset and not corrected immediately. We fear at this juncture that the Forest Service may be using the SWCC as political cover for its road-building and logging program and that the collaborators may be hesitant to be publicly critical of the Forest Service.

      You may feel free to quote me from what I’ve written in this Advisory and in the email string below.

      We’ve attached the Forest Service’s 10/23/18 press release in this matter for your convenience.

      If you’d like to see Ms. MacKenzie’s announcement of yesterday, that the comment period would be extended via notice posted today, let me know and I’ll forward it to you.

      Thank you for your attention to this matter.

      More information about this proposed timber sale and roadbuilding project can be found at: http://prairiepopulist.org/mid-swan-project/

      Reply
  1. This why it is nearly impossible to manage our national forests. The environmental groups can always threaten lawsuits. I wondered how miles of roads have been decommissioned in the last 20 years?
    From what I read the proposed 60 miles of new road construction is something thought up by the Swan View Coalition. Also I think their conclusions about roads is based on an anti-road bias, except of course those roads they might use to access the forest for their own pleasures.

    Reply
  2. Read the article at http://prairiepopulist.org/mid-swan-project/ and you’ll find a link to comments submitted to the Flathead by Mr. Burchfield and Mr. Haufler, co-chairs of the Southwest Crown Collaborative. They note that the Flathead Forest does propose 60 miles of new, permanent road construction and point out that, by law, Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Act funds cannot be used for new road construction. (Why? Because new road construction is not considered to be “restoration” under the CFLRA).

    The Flathead committed to limit total road densities in its Forest Plan Amendment 19 and to decommission roads to meet A19’s standards. It decommissioned some 700 miles of its 4,000 mile road network, but in its revised Forest Plan decided to do away with A19 and not decommission the remaining 500 miles necessary to comply with A19 standards. Under the old Plan, the total miles of road the Flathead could have in its road “system” was capped, but under the revised Plan it can have as many roads as it wants by simply denying they count in Total Road Density calculations and by simply denying the science that A19 was based on – which found that even roads closed to motor vehicles displace grizzly bears, necessitating limits on total road density, not just open road density.

    The Mid-Swan Project is just a taste of what the Flathead has in mind under its new Plan; use collaboratives to provide political cover for its “logging is restoration” agenda, then ignore those collaboratives and the intent of the CFLRA by building all the new roads it wants using other taxpayer funds. In spite of Forest Service-wide directives to arrive at a sustainable “minimum road system,” issued because roads are among the most environmentally destructive actions of the Forest Service, the Flathead intends to make its road system larger, not smaller, even though it can’t afford to maintain the roads it already has. It really is that hideous.

    Reply
  3. I read the scoping document which looked very carefully thought out.. here is the key statement
    “Connected Actions
    “Approximately 60 miles of roads would be constructed to implement proposed activities. Additional temporary roads may also be constructed and would be built on existing prisms wherever possible. Invasive and noxious weed treatments would occur along roads before and after vegetative treatments. Upon completion of the project, these roads would be made impassable so there would be no net increase to the baseline for motorized route access and no net decrease to the baseline for secure core.”

    What’s confusing about this to me is understanding physically exactly what happens to the roads after use. Apparently they are needed temporarily and might be called temporary roads except that they are not (called that). Maybe it’s an engineering/language issue in the scoping document?

    Reply
    • The 60 miles of new road construction would be permanent roads, in addition to an unspecified mileage of temporary roads. Under the 1986 Flathead Forest Plan and its Amendment 19, only temporary roads were allowed in grizzly bear habatat and had to be decommissioned, have all the stream-aligned culverts removed, and be fully re-vegetated (which happens to also comply with NFMA requirements to fully revegetate roads no longer a part of the permanent “system.”) Amendment 19 requires that these roads no longer function as a road or trail, either motorized or non-motorized.

      Under the revised Flathead Plan, these new permanent roads need only have minimal work done to block motorized vehicles – as minimal as simply falling a few trees across the road. The Flathead need not remove culverts if it doesn’t want to and the Flathead fully intends these roads to be used as roads/trails by hikers, mountain bikers, and even by motorized vehicles during the grizzly bear denning period.

      There are nearly 400 times more people than grizzly bears in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem and human populations in Flathead County and others are increasing at alarming rates – as is human recreation of all stripes in bear habitat. Allowing unlimited miles of roads and trails in grizzly bear habitat under the revised Flathead Plan will not maintain 2011 levels of grizzly bear habitat security as promised. It is a lie, pure and simple.

      If the Mid-Swan Scoping document is confusing, it is because it perpetuates the lie and is perhaps purposefully vague. The Mid-Swan Scoping document needs to be read in conjunction with the revised Forest Plan and its glossary to be correctly understood.

      On another note, the Flathead already has 79 miles of new mountain bike trails planned in grizzly bear habitat, and the ink is barely dry on its new Plan. A number of those bike trails would be on old logging roads that were supposed to be temporary and fully decommissioned – and remain that way. Take a look at the Forest Supervisor’s comments in the press the past couple of days and it is clear he wants people to have unfettered access to bear habitat – which is what the revised Forest Plan allows and says if you are into reading several thousand pages of Plan and FEIS.

      The Forest Supervisor is ignoring the grizzly bear research that was conducted right here on the Flathead National Forest (among other places), which found that even roads closed to motor vehicles still displace and harm grizzly bears due to continued non-motorized human use of those roads (and of course ATV trespass, etc.). It takes intentional, selective amnesia for him to now claim that closed roads don’t harm grizzly bears. He’s pandering to the selfish side of people and breaking the Flathead’s prior commitment to grizzly bears and the people that think they should be given adequate protection.

      Reply
    • I remember three categories of roads in the contracts I administered/inspected.

      Road Construction

      Road Re-construction

      Temporary Roads

      There are many specifications (from different sources) that control those activities. There is always a map, showing the roads to be built, with contract provisions included, for reference. Often, an unexpected Temporary Road is needed, and both sides have to agree on the details and mitigations. Now, I kind of find it amusing that some of my contractual sketching is saved, somewhere, in a box, as part of the history of that Timber Sale.

      Reply

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