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The U.S. Forest Service deserves a pat on the back. After decades of ambivalence, they are finally committing to manage the core of the Hyalite Porcupine Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area as recommended wilderness through the recently released draft Custer Gallatin Forest Plan.

Let us give thanks where thanks are due. This achievement reflects decades of incremental efforts by forward-thinking conservation leaders like The Wilderness Society, Montana Wilderness Association and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. These groups — partnering with hunters, anglers, landowners, recreationists and countless citizen volunteers — have been working toward Wilderness protection for this area since before Senator Lee Metcalf set it aside to be studied for its wild characteristics in 1977.

While this is an important milestone to be celebrated, the most crucial work has only begun. With the coming completion of the forest plan, a legislative window of opportunity will open to complete a half-century long quest for permanent protection of our wild Gallatin Range. There is no time to waste in seizing this opportunity.

Bozeman is one of the fastest growing cities of its size in the country. Smaller surrounding towns like Livingston, Ennis, and Big Sky also attract a new generation of outdoor enthusiasts clamoring for a piece of the Last Best Place. This growth will continue with potentially negative impacts on our forest unless we can figure out how to guide it.

To do that, we cannot afford to pretend it is 1970 again. Outdoor recreation in the Gallatin Range has always been complicated and in our lifetimes, outdoor use has really exploded. Today the Outdoor Alliance estimates the Custer Gallatin National Forest draws 3.5 million visits a year from hikers, paddlers, mountain bikers, and winter sports. That number could easily double in the coming decades.

To move forward we must confront the realities of today and put realistic insurance policies in place that will help manage existing outdoor opportunities while protecting our last best public lands and waters from being loved to death. Time is of the essence. The longer we wait the more growth will arrive and the more complicated this becomes.

So what does the path forward look like?

The final version of the Forest Plan and any future legislative proposals should closely follow the contours of a historic community agreement hashed out by the Gallatin Forest Partnership.

This pragmatic agreement is the product of Montanans working together to guarantee a future for responsible outdoor recreation, our wildlife, and our most deserving untrammeled spaces. The agreement includes meaningful wilderness and wildlife protection measures that have been endorsed by hundreds of local citizens in addition to the Park, Gallatin, and Madison County Commissioners.

While the draft Custer Gallatin Forest Plan is a good start, it simply left too much off the table. Specifically, the Forest should manage Cowboy Heaven as recommended wilderness and include the South Cottonwood and Mount Blackmore areas in a Hyalite watershed protection and recreation area to ensure both outdoor recreation and the undeveloped, wild character in these popular areas. That would put the Forest Plan in alignment with the Gallatin Forest Partnership Agreement which has garnered so much community support. We encourage everyone to raise these issues during this final phase of public review, which ends Sept. 8.

We have something special in the Gallatin Range and, for the first time since we can remember, recreation, conservation, business and local government leaders are united behind a plan to protect it. Now it is up to the Forest Service and Congress to advance this agreement into law to benefit our public lands, wildlife, and the next generation of outdoor users.

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Eva Patten and Michael Scott are long-time conservationists and residents of Bozeman

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