Derailing Collaborative Conservation: The Pintler Face Project

Derailing Collaborative Conservation: The Pintler Face Project

"Yet despite successfully achieving this collaboration, The Pintler Face Project serves as a poignant illustration of how the real problem holding vital forest management projects is actually our permitting process."

Key Points: 

  • The Pintler Face Project aims to increase forest health and resiliency in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.
  • Before commencing the project, forest managers spent five years actively engaging with conservation experts, hunting organizations and local communities, meticulously refining their plan in response to the feedback and concerns raised.
  • Yet, despite widespread consensus on the necessity of the Pintler Face Project to improve forest health, three fringe groups have used our permitting process in an attempt to stop the project, which had already been approved for two and half years.
  • Without serious reforms to our permitting process other vital forest projects will likely meet the same fate.


Montanans deeply understand the intricate connection between our state’s natural beauty and the prosperity and fulfillment it brings. We rely on healthy forest for everything from recreation to our livelihoods. From providing habitat for wildlife to supporting the timber industry that fuels local economies, forests are integral to our way of life. So much so that when this delicate balance is disrupted by closures of lumber mills or catastrophic wildfires, the entire state feels the impact.

Yet, despite the widely held belief by Montanans that we should be working to improve the health of our forests, our permitting process, both at the state and federal levels, still grant undue influence to a handful of fringe groups. These groups exploit the system, leveraging it to obstruct or halt projects aimed at enhancing the health and resilience of our forests, despite ample opportunities to address their concerns through collaboration.

The latest example comes from the Pintler Face Project in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, where three fringe groups have sued to halt the in-progress forest restoration project that aims to improve forest resiliency; increase vegetation both diversity and age; reduce trail-density in critical wildlife habitat; increase hunting opportunities by boosting wildlife habitat on public lands; and implement changes to ensure long term integrity of aquatic ecosystems.


The Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest (BDNF), including the site of the Pintler Face Project, lies near the epicenter of Montana’s early mining boom days. Its strategic location made it an easy choice for timber extraction, essential for constructing towns and supporting mining operations. This intensive logging continued throughout the 20th century.

During this time, fire was largely excluded from the landscape based on the belief that it was bad for forests and would only harm timber harvest. However, after decades of research we know this isn’t exactly true. By excluding fire from our forests for so long we have created overly dense, unhealthy forests that are all of a uniform age, making them prime targets for disease and insects. So now, when fires do occur, rather than playing their traditional role of helping maintain forest health, they instead lead to an unusually hot and large catastrophic fire which destroys entire habitats.

Luckily, after nearly a hundred years of poor management, the Forest Service is looking to restore this landscape to its natural healthy state. The BDNF began evaluating the current conditions of the forest in 2010. By July 2016, this information gathering phase culminated in the issuance of a scoping letter “describing the kind of work proposed, including the purpose and need for action,” with the purpose of getting feedback and addressing concerns from citizens. The letter asking for “ideas about [the] project” was not only publicly available but was also “mailed to 82 individuals, organizations, agencies, and tribes.”

In response to the proposal, interested citizens from the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Working Group began to engage with the proposal. Members of the group represented conservation interests, hunting and fishing, timber, outfitters and guides, agriculture/ranching, recreation, and county commissioners.

However, the working group wasn’t the sole contributor to the input for the Pintler Face Project. With an additional $82,500 allocated by Montana DNRC’s Forests in Focus initiative, the BDNF diligently sought input from a wide array of stakeholders. Collaborators included Montana’s Fish, Wildlife, and Parks; Montana Department of Environmental Quality; Beaverhead County; Anaconda Deer Lodge County; Bureau of Land Management; Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes; Eastern Shoshone Tribe; Blackfeet Tribe; Nez Perce Tribe; Shoshone-Bannock Tribes; Wilderness Association; Defenders of Wildlife; the Greater Yellowstone Coalition; National Forest Foundation; and Anaconda Sportsman’s Club. From countless informational meetings to field trips to the site, the Pintler Face Project served as a shining light for how forest management collaboration should happen.

On November 9, 2017, the Pintler Face Project Environmental Assessment was published for the public to provide further feedback on the plan specifics. Over the next four years the BDNF modified the Pintler Face Project to take into account concerns, such as changes to avoid direct impacts to “Grizzly Bear in spring, Moose winter range, and Canada lynx preferred habitat.” Then on September 9, 2021, the revised Environmental Assessment was published, in addition with the decision to move forward with the modified project.

The Pintler Face Project scoping, analysis and final decision took more than 5 years to complete, with the final EA totalling 367 pages.


Despite extensive collaboration by habitat experts, substantial revisions to the project plan aimed at addressing concerns, and the project already being approved for two and a half years, on February 16, 2024, three groups filed a lawsuit in an attempt to stop the Pintler Face Project.

The groups allege that the Forest Service violated NEPA by preparing an Environmental Assessment for the Project instead of the more intensive Environmental Impact Statement, a decision which commonly becomes a subject of litigation. A move which would have postponed the project for years, without extinguishing the potential for future legal disputes.

One of the other significant claims made by the groups is that the Forest Service violated NEPA by failing to perform an EIS or EA when remapping lynx habitat on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge in 2020.

The groups have asked the court to either reject the project decision or block its implementation. While a court order has not been issued yet on the Pintler Face Project, it is likely that it will face the same demise as the Greater Red Lodge forest management project, which faced similar allegations.

The Impact

It is abundantly clear that Montana’s forests are in a precarious position, and that maintaining the current status quo will only lead to a further decline in forest health. It is also clear that in order to actually make forest management projects a reality and avoid the catastrophic fires that could completely destroy our forests, those with differing opinions must come together and find common ground. Yet despite successfully achieving this collaboration, The Pintler Face Project serves as a poignant illustration of how the real problem holding vital forest management projects is actually our permitting process. 

Despite the overwhelmingly positive aspects of this project, three small fringe groups have hijacked our well-intentioned permitting process to serve their own personal interests. Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation President and CEO, Kyle Weaver and Boone & Crockett Club CEO, Tony Schoonen put it this way, “The Pintler Face project would be good for wildlife, including — if not in particular — some of the vulnerable species for which the environmental groups claim they are safeguarding.”

Without serious changes to our permitting system, other beneficial forest management projects will face the same fate as the Pintler Face Project and become just another notch in the belt of those who would rather watch our forests be decimated rather than do something to save them.

If we are serious about making our forests healthier and more resilient, then we must reform our environmental permitting process so projects aimed at doing just that can actually get started – before it’s too late.

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