Seeley Swan Pathfinder -

By Andi Bourne

Illegal access to Forest Service roads needs community solution


October 24, 2019

Nathan Bourne, Pathfinder

The Seeley Lake Ranger District's pile of broken, cut and bent gates that have been vandalized.

SEELEY LAKE – With the hunting season opening this weekend, Seeley Lake District Ranger Quinn Carver is asking for everyone's diligence and cooperation with gate closures and decommissioned roads. Not only are the gates fulfilling a legal obligation of the Forest based on other management decisions they are also important for maintaining the Forest's infrastructure investment and are costly to replace. Violating road closures may also have a much larger impact to public access depending how a recent federal court decision plays out in the coming months.

Carver said vandalism of gates and unauthorized access through the gates has been a chronic issue on the District.

"We have struggled with gates and closures all summer," said Carver at the Seeley Lake Community Council meeting Oct. 14. "People have locked them open when there is a logger operating behind, pulled them, bent or whatever. That costs taxpayers money [$3,000 per gate]. If you want to spend it replacing gates we can do that but I think you want us to do other things besides replacing gates or improving barriers."

Carver recognized the public perception that by gating roads they are taking away access.

"A lot of times these decisions are less driven by Forest Service impetus and more driven by what we are legally required to do," said Carver in a separate interview.

Carver explained that the Forest Service must achieve bear management goals and maintain their obligations under previous management decisions. This includes decommissioning old jammer roads that are no longer used or roads that are duplicative.

"There is a fair amount of decommissioning work going on and there will be hunters that will be upset," said Carver at the Council meeting.

The Forest Service also has a responsibility to protect their infrastructure investment so the public has a usable, maintainable transportation system.

In the spring, the District used to post signs that they move up as the roads dry out.

"We just don't have the people or the resources to do that anymore," said Carver. "We have to protect our investment in the roads system so that it is in good shape and safe for people to use in the summertime."

The District has invested a significant amount of resources in road infrastructure improvement this summer. As noted on the District's project tracker map, there were three road decommissioning projects (FS #17483, FS #16005, Colt), four reroutes (FS #4353, Spring Creek and the Cottonwood Creek Tributary and Swamp Creek Aquatic Offset Project on FS #477), three bridge projects (North Fork Smoke's Cabin, North Fork Cabin and Spruce Creek FS #4388) and the Nome Creek culvert replacement on FS #4388.

Carver said funding for infrastructure is often the limiting factor for the District. However, through timber sales, partnerships and the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration (CFLR) Program, they have been able to make a lot of significant improvements with more to come.

"The investment in the road system through the bridges, culverts and the relocations and all the other stuff is a taxpayer, community investment whether you agree with it or not," said Carver. "We've got all this investment out there and we have issues with our gates. How do we as a community grab hold of that? It really is a three-part story to tell. Put the [tracker project] map out [so people can] plan around our stuff, make the investment that we put into it this summer and then protect the investment which involves the gates."

Carver would like to start a dialogue with the community. He feels it is impossible to separate the community from the National Forest. He asks the public to call the District, 677-2233, with reports of damaged or destroyed gates as well as a person or persons who was witnessed vandalizing a gate or gaining unauthorized access.

"How do we all do this together?" asked Carver. "You don't have to agree but let's get some community buy-in on our transportation system so we can move forward."

Court ruling on road closures on the Kootenai National Forest

A recent decision by U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy may offer another reason for the public to be more diligent with road closures.

On Oct. 3, Molloy ruled in favor of the Alliance of the Wild Rockies' request for a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement on the 36,600-acre Pilgrim logging project on the Kootenai National Forest. He required the Forest Service to account for all non-closed roads in the project area. This counts towards the baseline, the limit of linear miles of open and total roads within a specific area. A road is not considered closed unless it is completely impassable to motorized vehicles.

The Kootenai National Forest had an incidental take statement (ITS) for grizzly bears as part of their 2011 Access Amendment. An ITS is an estimate by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services of the "take" of a threatened or endangered species that is likely to result from an action by a federal agency. "Take" means to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, collect or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.

Depending on the requirements for the bear management area or more specific to this cause, the bear outside recovery zone (BORZ), the Forest Service can close a road and open another road for various projects as long as the baseline is not exceeded.

While the Forest Service conceded that ineffective closures have caused baseline mileage levels to be exceeded in some instances, they insisted those temporary increases fall within the existing take statement because it only prohibits permanent increases of mileage above baseline conditions. The Alliance argued that "chronically exceeding the baseline" mileage is a permanent increase.

Molloy wrote in his ruling, "It is the permanency of the overall increase in mileage that matters under the take statement, not the permanency of specific roads. Alliance persuasively argues that mileage increases in at least three of the BORZ areas are permanent in nature."

The Alliance successfully argued that the Forest Service's original NEPA documents for the Pilgrim Project incorrectly assumed that no motorized access would occur behind closed roads. The Alliance found that berms used to close the roads were ineffective at preventing motorized access because people just drove over or around them.

Nathan Bourne, Pathfinder

One of the Seeley Lake Ranger District gates that was cut with a torch.

While Molloy noted that the agency considered bear disturbance and displacement, "Alliance persuasively shows that while the agencies' assumptions regarding closure effectiveness may have been reasonable in 2011, data over the last eight years demonstrates that ineffective closures have contributed to increases in linear road miles and potentially impacted grizzly bears in ways not previously considered."

In response to the Forest Service's claim that even if illegal road use was not specifically considered, the impacts of permanent road mileage within the Clark Fork BORZ area remains below baseline levels, the Alliance argued that a lack of consistent monitoring makes the extent of ineffective road closures unclear.

Molloy stated in the ruling, "This therefore leads to the close question of whether the incorrect assumptions of the NEPA documents coupled with the uncertainty of the extent of ineffective closures is sufficient to trigger supplemental analysis. It is."


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