by Laura Lundquist, Chronicle Staff Writer
In response to a court order, the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest has revised its environmental study addressing road-density requirements over almost 3.4 million acres of forest in southwestern Montana.
The Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest is requesting public comment on its updated environmental impact statement that evaluates how temporary roads should be included in calculations of road and trail density when evaluating potential forest projects.
Roads allow agencies to manage the forest by enabling resource extraction, fire suppression and restoration activities. But they also contribute to the spread of invasive weeds and can affect the behavior and survival of wildlife.
To clear up confusion in future projects, the proposal would redefine “open motorized road and trail density” as including temporary roads that would not eventually be reclaimed, administrative roads and motorized routes on private inholdings.
Temporary roads that would be demolished at the end of a project are not included in the definition. However, the proposal would require managers to study the effect of such temporary roads on wildlife before approving any project.
“These types of temporary roads displace wildlife during construction and use when they occur in (an unroaded area). Adverse impacts to wildlife could result from temporary roads constructed for resource extraction such as timber harvest or mining,” the report concluded.
National forest management plans are the road maps for agency actions that last at least 15 years. Plans go through the public comment process and oversee vegetation, wildlife, timber production, livestock grazing, and recreation and travel management.
In 2009, the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest finalized its newest Forest Management Plan, which listed road-density goals to benefit wildlife that vary between 0 and 2 miles per square mile in 11 regions. In addition, more conservative density goals go into effect in 29 hunting units during the big game season.
But the national forest didn’t include temporary roads in these measurements.
In 2011, the forest proposed a 3,068-acre logging project that would require the construction of temporary roads on Mount Fleecer, 20 miles southwest of Butte.
In February 2012, Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council sued the national forest because the project didn’t consider how the additional roads and increased road density would affect wildlife.
“They were violating the Forest Service Plan by excluding temporary roads from the road density,” said Alliance for the Wild Rockies spokesman Michael Garrity. “Elk don’t know the difference between temporary and permanent roads — they both have vehicles on them.”
In May 2013, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen agreed and stopped the project, saying the original environmental study used a procedural shortcut to avoid a more thorough review.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that lynx could be present in the area, but they did not “occupy” it. As a result, the national forest did not investigate the project’s effect on lynx.
Christensen required the national forest and the USFWS to conduct a more thorough study of the project’s effect on lynx and grizzly bears under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Christensen also ordered them to study the effect of additional roads on the local elk population, which has experienced declining numbers.
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks submitted comments expressing concern that additional roads would create difficulty in managing big game numbers.
This proposed Environmental Impact Statement would reach beyond the Fleecer project, becoming part of the 2009 forest management plan.
The Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest estimates that approximately 70 miles of temporary road may be constructed for resource extraction over the next 15 years.