“The Shoshone is going to continue to be a backcountry forest,” said Forest Supervisor Joe Alexander in a recent briefing on the new proposed plan with reporters. “We are going to continue to emphasize some of the greatest backcountry opportunities in the world; however, we will couple that with more opportunities for recreation in our front country.”
Approximately 87 percent of the national forest’s 2.4 million acres are either wilderness or roadless areas, where many activities are banned to protect their wild qualities.
It’s outside of those areas where the proposed plan would allow more recreation. Alexander said opportunities could include more outfitting and guiding — such as ice climbing and mountain biking — and the potential for designating places for off-highway vehicles to ride. He said the Shoshone National Forest currently has no formal trails for all-terrain vehicles, and “we probably need to have some that are designated just for ATVs.”
However, the supervisor qualified that the changes will be more a “perfecting” of the current system than an overhaul, citing the example of parallel, existing routes being turned into an ATV loop.
“These new opportunities we talk about are not going to be at the expense of wildlife,” Alexander added.
Exactly what changes would occur to the trail and road system will not be determined by this plan. The draft document is effectively a zoning plan for the forest, laying out which parts of the forest are suitable for what activities. Specific projects will only be approved or disapproved later.
In the case of trails, those will be discussed, debated and hashed out during an entirely separate travel management process that will start up sometime after the final plan is completed in the winter of 2014.
For now, the Shoshone is looking for comments from the public on the overarching management direction for the forest laid out in the plan.
The draft land management plan for the forest totals 286 pages and is accompanied by a 691-page draft environmental impact statement. According to forest officials, their proposal generally doesn’t change much from the current plan, in effect since 1986.
Alexander said the Shoshone strategy’s for protecting the grizzly bear will not change, livestock grazing will stay steady, as will current snowmobiles and the amount of roads and wilderness areas. No significant changes are planned for campsites, either. Despite sometimes reaching full capacity during peak times, Alexander said the forest’s sites average a bit less than half-full.
The Shoshone has provided a reader’s guide and summary to help folks understand the documents, which are not always self-explanatory.
For example, a straight reading of the document says that Shoshone officials are proposing to close off about 10 percent of the acres of land that have “high potential” for oil and gas and have been available for development.
Alexander said the wording can give the wrong impression: “There may be a high potential of there being something there, but that doesn’t mean there’s a high potential of development” — that is, having minerals that are cost-effective to get at.
Alexander acknowledged the verbiage is a little bit confusing (a complaint forest officials heard from cooperators) and said they’ll work to clarify the meaning.
It’s not as though anything on the Shoshone has shown particularly high potential to be developed: forest records say no rigs have ever produced on the Shoshone, and none have been drilled since at least 1990.
Two drilling projects were proposed in recent years — one near Clark and one in the Dubois area — but the Clark proposal was dropped by the company just before the Shoshone was to green-light it, and “we’re not even sure if something’s going to happen” with the approved Dubois rig, Alexander said.
“Oil and gas is something that has never been a big player on the Shoshone and, you know, we don’t have any indication that that’s going to change. We just don’t see it,” said Alexander, adding, “There’s just other places around us that likely to be more productive and I guess more favorable in terms of cost.”
Another example of the document’s potentially confusing nature can be found in one of the pie charts contained in the summary. The chart indicates that areas managed for recreation use are dropping, but that’s actually just due to changes in the way the Forest Service has categorized the forest.
“It’s a perceived loss, but it’s not a real loss,” Alexander said. “It’s simply a different mapping exercise.”
The new plan would give Shoshone officials the ability to boost timber harvesting from the past plan, but Alexander said budget constraints will likely keep timber sales about what they have been.
The plan is too late to stop the bark beetle, he said.
“The bark beetle is doing kind of what the bark beetle wants to do, regardless of what our plan says,” said Alexander.
There are some new tools, however, that the plan will provide to protect communities and subdivisions. There’s also a lot of focus on preparing the white bark pine — an important food source for grizzly bears — for a recovery across the forest.
Linking up with other national forests and Yellowstone National Park to address the entire landscape of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is also on tap.
The finished plan should guide use of the forest for the next 10 to 15 years, Alexander said.
Thanks to court rulings that have scuttled the way such plans are written, the plan revision has taken eight years of starts and restarts. This draft was put together over the past two years. Now it faces what Alexander describes as a “gut check” in the form of the 90-day public comment period.
If you have questions regarding the draft documents or the plan revision process, contact Carrie Christman at 307-578-5118.
Forest officials will host a public meeting on the plan in Cody on Sept. 24.