Old logging roads wind up and around Mount Ellis, the forested peak southeast of Bozeman. Instead of logging trucks, the rugged roads now carry hikers, runners and dog-walkers into the woods, a symptom of being a pathway on public land near a growing town.
There were already a handful of cars at the gate when Tim Tousignant arrived on a recent morning for a hike. He leashed Bridger, his Yorkie, and strapped bear spray to his chest. He walked through the gate and started up the hill, and then he pointed out what the old two-track could have been used for — a route for loggers to reach the Limestone West Timber Sale.
“This is probably how they would have brought the logging equipment to the area,” Tousignant said.
The project proposed by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation would have sent trucks up the road to reach Limestone Creek, where new road would have been cut to reach the 443 acres where the state wanted trees knocked down.
But those plans were nixed. None of that’s going to happen for at least 25 years, and it’s because of the organization Tousignant spearheaded — Save Our Gallatin Front — and a large check.
Over the past three years, the group has loudly opposed the sale at every turn, raising concerns that logging would spoil one of the last wild areas close to town. In the end, it became the first group to outbid a timber company for an entire logging project in Montana, securing a conservation license barring the work for 25 years. And, in a matter of days, the group raised $453,000 to actually pay for the license.
Tousignant attributes the success to a “perfect storm” of talent among a core group of people, not to mention vast support from people around the Gallatin Valley. But the victory also came with a consequence.
It highlighted an obscure law that allowed logging opponents to stop sales by paying for them. The idea rankled the timber industry, and industry reps made erasing that law a top priority at the 2019 Montana Legislature.
This week, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock signed the repeal into law, torpedoing any chance this might happen somewhere else in Montana.
“We may be the first and the last,” Tousignant said.
About 6,400 acres of land around Mount Ellis is state trust land, managed by DNRC. Trust lands were granted to Montana and other western states once they became states, primarily as a way to make money for schools. Some of the land near Mount Ellis was part of the original Fort Ellis, and it was gifted to Montana separately shortly after statehood.
But its mission as a profit-maker was the same as other trust lands. Logging is the tool DNRC has used there, and it’s used it somewhat regularly. The most recent large timber sale came in 2012, when nearly 700 acres were logged near Bear Canyon.
The agency looked to unlogged parts of the area in 2016 for the Limestone West Timber Sale. The spot DNRC targeted was near Limestone Creek, a roadless drainage not far from the Triple Tree and Eagle Rock subdivisions.
Residents of the two developments worried what a timber sale would do to the northern edge of the Gallatin Range. Many use the nearby trails often, and they cherish their view. Some, like Noreen Breeding, have wandered just about everywhere on the Gallatin front, even where no roads have been built.
Breeding lives in Eagle Rock, a private subdivision in the foothills of the mountains. She’s retired and has lived in Bozeman for 17 years. Big windows in her house offer stunning views of the mountains, and she possesses an intricate mental map of every drainage and draw. Limestone Creek is where the moose live, she said. It’s also where she once saw a mountain lion chasing a deer.
She remembers going to meetings about the Bear Canyon timber sale, and later watching the headlights of logging trucks from her window.
When she heard about the Limestone sale, she didn’t like it, especially the idea of cutting roads into that drainage.
“It’s really just a special area for the wildlife because there’s no roads and there’s no formal access, so there’s nothing in there to disturb them,” Breeding said.
The sale alarmed Ron Matelich, too. Matelich works at D.A. Davidson. He has been in Bozeman for 11 years, arriving after a stint in Whitefish, and he lives in Triple Tree.
“I didn’t want the viewshed ruined,” he said. “I had moved to Triple Tree because of the trails and the natural beauty.”
Matelich recalled talking with the president of the Triple Tree owner’s association about it. The president had a suggestion.
“You should get in touch with Tim Tousignant.”
An organized fight
Tousignant has lived in Bozeman for 11 years. Bespectacled, white-haired and clean cut, he came here after working high-level jobs with large corporations and living all over the country, most recently in Chicago. He wanted out of the corporate world, so he and his wife decided to try to buy a business somewhere they wanted to live.
They found a match in Belgrade — Kerr’s Cotton. The company custom dyes clothing and ships it all over the country. Most of its products are tie-dye. One year, the company made 15,000 tie-dye shirts for a few Las Vegas hotels. The hotels were doing a retro-themed summer.
Tousignant and his wife live in Triple Tree, and they love the lifestyle. Hiking, skiing and more tolerable traffic jams.
“How many places can you drive 20 minutes to work and the only traffic jam you have is the elk herd crossing the road?” Tousignant said.
The elk were what drove him to oppose the timber sale. He didn’t want to see them displaced, and he thinks there should be some check on society encroaching on wildlife habitat, so he decided to fight.
Others who didn’t like the project coalesced around Tousignant, including Breeding.
“He instigated it,” Breeding said. “He decided that we don’t have to take this lying down; we can do something about it.”
Tousignant decided to form Save Our Gallatin Front to organize the push for an alternative to logging. He felt a sense of urgency. DNRC projects sometimes move quickly, and big ideas for protecting a swath of land tend to move slowly.
The first sign the movement was gaining significant traction came quickly. DNRC held a public meeting about the Limestone project in June 2016. A crowd way too big for a conference room showed, forcing the meeting onto the DNRC office’s patio.
“I think that’s the first indication the DNRC had that this was going to be a little bit different than most of the projects they worked,” Tousignant said.
A few months later, the group filed an application for a conservation license to block the entire sale. But even then, the group’s leaders didn’t think that’s how they’d stop the project. They hoped they’d convince DNRC the work was simply a bad idea.
They tried whatever they could. They wrote public comments at every opportunity. They hired scientists to study the area and bolster their case. Breeding dug up a decades-old DNRC document that deemed the area unsuitable for logging. In August 2017, they walked the area with DNRC director John Tubbs, hoping to sway him.
Roadbuilding was a major concern. DNRC’s final proposal called for 6.7 miles of new roads, most of which would have been reclaimed after the sale and all of which would have been closed to public motorized use. But parts of the remaining roads could have turned into unofficial hiking trails, similar to Mount Ellis. The group didn’t want that to happen to another part of the Gallatin front.
While all that effort alone didn’t kill the project, DNRC did scale it back from earlier proposals of more than 700 acres to 443 acres. But it still was pushing for logging, unless the group could win the conservation license.
The Montana Legislature created timber conservation licenses in 1999. The bill was proposed by DNRC. Bud Clinch was the department’s director then, and he said he remembers the bill being a lawsuit over a timber sale near Dillon. He couldn’t remember the name of the sale, or much else about it.
Nevertheless, the bill passed easily, setting the table for the Limestone kerfuffle 20 years later.
“I don’t know if at the time I had specific thoughts about the long-term ramifications of it,” Clinch said. “It was such a new concept that I don’t know if we really could foresee how it would ultimately be used.”
The first conservation license was awarded in 2006. A landowner secured a license for 1.2 acres of a timber project spanning more than 1,000 acres near Bigfork.
Ten years later, DNRC received the request from Save Our Gallatin Front. It was the first time the agency had to consider a license deferring an entire project.
Craig Campbell, DNRC’s Bozeman unit manager, said the challenge came in figuring out how long the license should last. DNRC wanted to be able to sell the trees once the license expired, so agency officials tried to balance that with making the license worth buying. They ultimately decided on 25 years.
“We did our best to interpret and implement the law the way we believe it was meant to be interpreted,” Campbell said.
Save Our Gallatin Front argued the term was too short, saying a logging project would raze the forest for much longer than 25 years.
The timber industry opposed the idea altogether. When the sale went before the Montana Land Board in January, several timber reps urged the board to cut the license out of the auction entirely.
The land board didn’t do that, instead voting to accept sealed bids on the items simultaneously for 30 days, ending in early March.
Save Our Gallatin Front didn’t have any representatives comment at the land board meeting, but it sued the state hours after the board voted. The suit argued over the price of the conservation license — the group didn’t believe it should be forced to pay the full stumpage value of the sale because trees would remain standing and could be sold again once the license expired. A decision in its favor could have made the license less expensive.
The auction was already open, and the group wanted a judge to halt it while deciding on the case. But Gallatin County District Judge Rienne McElyea denied that request in late February, just days ahead of the bidding deadline.
Tousignant was discouraged. He wrote an email to some of the group’s leaders, saying he felt like it was over.
Breeding said she felt the same way, but only briefly. After some thinking, she figured they might as well try. She wrote back, saying they ought to at least put out a bid.
“We have no hope of winning, but it’s our duty,” Breeding said.
Tousignant still thought it was a long shot. Attempts to get outside help on the bidding process were fruitless, so he studied past sale results. He came up with what he thought the timber companies would offer — maybe $600,000 or $700,000, well above the minimum bid for the Limestone sale of $376,002.40.
Tousignant crafted a plan to bid roughly $400,000 and argue the state tack on the value the trees would have in 25 years, since they’d still be standing. He thought that would make his bid more competitive with what timber companies would offer.
That fight wouldn’t be necessary.
Save Our Gallatin Front won the license by about $24,000. RY Timber, the only other bidder, offered the minimum.
Timber companies don’t often bid the minimum. The Chronicle reviewed records of 16 timber sales offered since July 2018 and found no other instance of a company bidding the minimum, though a few came close.
Ed Regan, of RY Timber, couldn’t be reached for this story before deadline. He told the Chronicle after the results were released that the company offered what it thought the sale was worth.
Julia Altemus, executive director of the Montana Wood Products Association, said the company had to consider the cost of building roads and a tough lumber market.
“It’s not that they bid the minimum, but they bid what they felt like they had to bid in order to make it profitable,” Altemus said.
Save Our Gallatin Front’s members immediately turned its focus to raising money. They had 30 days before the first of three payments was due. In addition to the $400,000, they needed another $50,000 or so to cover other expenses that come with the license.
They reached out to neighbors, bought newspaper ads and set up a GoFundMe.
“That first week was really anxiety provoking,” Matelich said. “We had a very short window to raise that money. But after about a week of making the calls, it was evident that we were going to not only meet our goals but exceed them.”
In the end, Tousignant said, 210 people contributed $453,623. They decided to pay the whole price up front.
The use of the obscure law was enough to inspire the timber industry to push for its repeal. Altemus said getting that law off the books was her “number one priority” for the 2019 Legislature.
Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman, introduced House Bill 441 to accomplish that. He told lawmakers at committee hearings that it would protect the timber industry and keep DNRC’s focus on cutting down trees. The final version of the bill included a line that specifically said it wouldn’t affect licenses that had already been offered, protecting Limestone West from any retroactive action.
It found a lot of friends in the statehouse, including a few Democrats, and it cleared both houses on wide margins. On Thursday, Bullock signed the bill into law.
But that won’t be the end of talk about conservationists paying for non-use rights on public land, said Shawn Regan, a research fellow at the Bozeman-based Property and Environment Research Center, a think tank focused on “free market environmentalism.”
Regan has studied and written about the idea of paying to block extractive uses on public land. He donated to Save Our Gallatin Front, saying he wanted to see the whole process play out.
He said states have to honor high bids in auctions of rights to use trust lands, since those lands are meant for profit. Trust lands exist in most western states, and there are examples of groups or individuals buying up rights so the land can be preserved. He pointed to the example of Jon Marvel, the founder of Western Watersheds Project, buying up grazing leases on state land in Idaho.
“It’s not clear that the state could reject a conservation bidder,” Regan said.
Others have a philosophical problem with the idea. Mike Garrity, executive director of Alliance for the Wild Rockies, said maximizing that approach takes science out of land management decisions and turns them over to whoever has the most money. In some cases, it could be a conservationist. In others, it could be a miner or a logger.
He also said the approach would tilt the balance of power against regular people.
“The problem with having to pay the state not to destroy state lands is it gives rich people a bigger vote,” Garrity said.
His group sues over timber sales on federal land, often over issues regarding the Endangered Species Act, but largely doesn’t mess with state timber sales. Even if the conservation license law still existed, he said he wouldn’t be using it to block state timber sales.
“I appreciate what (Save Our Gallatin Front) did,” Garrity said. “It’s not something that can be replicated throughout the state.”
Tousignant was disappointed by the repeal of the conservation license law. He sees that as the governor bending to the timber industry. He thinks the state could benefit from thinking more about letting conservationists bid on other projects, but he’s not holding out hope that will ever happen.
He’s proud of what his group was able to do. Best team ever, he said.
“It’s that kind of ‘I’ll do whatever it takes’ thing that this group had,” he said.
And there’s still work to do. The organization has some obligations over the next 25 years, such as holding a liability insurance policy. It became a formal nonprofit this year, and the people who made up Tousignant’s “perfect storm” became the board.
They’re still bristling over the 25-year term, too. The land will be primed for another logging proposal once the license expires and the option they used to protect it once is now gone. Plus, Tousignant said, he’ll be 85 at that point, assuming he’s still around at all.
They want permanent protection, and they want it to happen soon. Maybe a land swap, maybe something else.
“With a 25-year runway, we’ve got more time now to talk about some other options,” he said. “We’re going to push forward and we’ll see where it goes.”