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How many roads is too many roads?

by CHRIS PETERSON
Editor | February 17, 2021 7:00 AM

A lawsuit that could determine the future of road management on the Flathead National Forest is coming to a head in federal court.

The Swan View Coalition and WildEarth Guardians have challenged the Flathead’s 2018 Forest Plan, which changed the formula for how it manages roads.

As such, several new forest management projects call for building new roads, after years of building hardly any.

At the crux of the issue is Amendment 19, which was added to the previous Forest plan of 1986. Under Amendment 19, the Flathead was required to remove roads and their culverts to protect grizzly bears and bull trout, both listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

But the bears, by many biologists accounts, have recovered to sustainable populations, with more than 1,000 roaming the hills of Northwest Montana.

The bull trout, however, not so much. There are still several imperiled streams in what once was one prime fish habitat. Add competition from non-native lake trout and bull trout numbers have been far lower than they used to be outside of the South Fork of the Flathead, where there are few roads and non-native lake trout can infiltrate the ecosystem past the Hungry Horse Dam.

Since the 2018 Flathead National Forest plan was finalized, the Forest has proposed adding or reopening at least 69.8 miles of roads in prime grizzly bear and bull trout habitat.

Under Amendment 19 that would have been difficult, maintain Keith Hammer of the Swan View Coalition and Arlene Montgomery of Friends of the Wild Swan.

Amendment 19 called for “decommissioning” roads, which meant they were made not only impassable, but the culverts were torn out as well to avoid impacts to fish.

All told, the Flathead decommissioned about 700 miles of roads over the years since Amendment 19 was implemented in 1995.

But the 2018 plan came with a new standard, one that looked to keep road densities at 2011 levels — when the grizzly bear was considered biologically recovered.

But there’s a caveat to this. Roads no longer have to be “decommissioned.” They can be made what’s termed “impassable” by the Forest Service.

Impassable roads are”not counted in the total motorized route density as long as the road (generally the first 50 to 300 feet) has been treated to make it inaccessible to wheeled motorized vehicles during the non denning (grizzly bear) season,” the 2018 plan states.

Therein lies the rub, claims Hammer.

“The fact of the matter is they wanted to increase the timber base more than Amendment 19 allows,” he claimed.

The Forest has increased its yield, which means more timber in mills are preserves the jobs they support. Last year, for example, it sold 47.3 million board feet of timber on harvests of about 3,700 acres. That’s about 17 million board feet that it has sold in years past, even without the new roads.

The Forest Service did not respond to a request for comments on the suit, but it notes in court briefs that it based the new road standards on the opinions of its own federal biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It also notes that Amendment 19 wasn’t he sole reason why grizzly bears recovered, as they’ve had greater protections than they have in decades.

“The issue is whether the Fish and Wildlife Service reasonably determined that the revised plan will not jeopardize threatened species. Further, the grizzly bear population has increased not only because of road management under Amendment 19, but also because of numerous conservation actions by the Forest Service inside and outside of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem,” it claims.

They also claim the new closure standards are adequate, even if the road could, conceivably, be opened at a later date.

“The central tenet is inaccessibility, not the existence of a barrier,” they claim.

In addition, they claim it’s the motorized use and humans, not the road that are the problem.

“An impassable road is closed to motorized traffic … and the threat posed by a road stems primarily from levels of motorized traffic and human use rather than the road’s presence on the landscape,” the Forest claims.

But Montgomery takes issue with that. When it comes to fish, roads mean culverts and culverts can mean washouts and sediments in streams, harming fish.

Under the new plan, the Forest plans on inventorying road culverts on a six-year rotation.

Under Amendment 19, culverts were inspected annually and when roads were decommissioned, the culverts were taken out entirely, she noted.

The case is coming to a head soon.

Both sides have filed briefs and it’s likely they’ll make oral arguments in the next few months in front of federal district court judge Donald Molloy.

Molloy’s decision in the matter could come this year.

If Swan View and WildEarth prevail, portions of the Forest plan could go back to the drawing board.

“It’s all smoke and mirrors and full of holes if you take the time to figure out what the scam is,” Hammer claimed.

If Amendment 19 is restored. The Forest would have its work cut out for it to decommission even more roads.

The 2018 plan speaks to that.

“In order to fully meet Amendment 19 numeric objectives for all three measures of motorized access density … an additional 518 miles of roads would need to be reclaimed. This total includes up to about 400 miles of roads on lands acquired through the Montana Legacy Project and about 57 miles of trails where wheeled motorized use would no longer be allowed unless site-specifically amended,” it notes.

The Montana Legacy lands are land the Forest Service acquired from Plum Creek Tiber Co. in the Swan Valley several years ago in one of the largest land deals in U.S. history. Plum Creek, however, harvested most of the merchantable timber from those lands, the Forest notes in the 2018 plan, and it will take decades for the trees to regrow.