After a two-year delay to comply with a court order, the Kootenai National Forest has once again approved one of five large logging projects among old-growth forests and a grizzly bear recovery area in northwest Montana. Some groups say project managers continue to favor logging over ecological concerns.

Kootenai National Forest Supervisor Chad Benson signed a decision this week authorizing the 143-square-mile Black Ram Project, which has been in the works for almost a decade.

In the rural and wild lands along the Canadian border, the project would log 57 million board-feet of timber using more than 2,000 acres of clearcuts, or “regeneration harvests,” which environmental groups say are effectively clearcuts with a few trees left standing. Selective logging would occur within almost 580 acres of old-growth stands, and prescribed burns would be used on about 7,000 acres.

Benson wrote that the project is needed to meet the goals of the 2015 Kootenai Forest Plan. Two groups, the Yaak Valley Forest Council and the Kootenai Forest Stakeholders Coalition, asked Benson to develop a “wildness” alternative, but Benson said he didn’t consider it because it didn’t meet the purpose of a logging project.

Benson made a few small changes to the 2019 proposal, such as splitting one harvest unit into three to protect a riparian area, but left most of the proposal as is.

The Forest Service identified 1.5% of the project area as being in the wildland-urban interface, so Benson said the project would “reduce the potential for high-intensity wildfire while promoting desirable fire behavior characteristics and fuel conditions in the wildland urban interface.” He decided the project didn’t need a full environmental impact statement because it doesn’t “have a significant effect on the quality of the human environment.”

Several groups immediately pointed out that it would still have a significant effect on the wildlife species of the region, especially since the Black Ram Project lies between the 56,000-acre Buckhorn Project and the 72,500-acre North-East Yaak Project, creating one massive project. In particular, the Cabinet-Yaak population of grizzly bears –estimated at around 45 in 2020 – could suffer losses due to logging activity and the creation and re-opening of more miles of road.

“By authorizing the Black Ram Project, the Forest Service demonstrates it is acting as a rogue agency, using the threat of wildfire to log mature and old-growth trees and forests, and further harm threatened grizzly bears in (the Yaak) where 20 to 30 bears are struggling to survive. Opening and expanding an already bloated road system on the Kootenai National Forest, in addition to logging thousands of acres, shows exactly what the agency means when it falsely claims to be restoring forests," said Adam Rissien, WildEarth Guardians rewilding manager.

Benson originally gave initial approval to the project in 2019. He then withdrew the decision after a Missoula federal judge found in October 2019 that many Forest Service road closures were ineffective on the Pilgrim II, a different Kootenai Forest logging project in the Cabinet Mountains. The judge ordered the Kootenai Forest to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service on how more motorized access would affect grizzly bears.

Several other studies and lawsuits have concluded that the greater the road density and the farther roads penetrate deep forest, the more bears end up dead, as more people invade their habitat and cause conflict. Other studies have shown that merely erecting a berm across a road does little to keep out off-road vehicles, so such roads shouldn’t be counted as “closed.”

“This exemplifies the flaws in the agencies approach of trading off one road’s opening for another road’s closure. It’s a false trade-off, because they’re effectively reducing habitat security for grizzly bears,” Rissien said. “The numbers might not seem glaring – they’re adding 2 miles of undetermined road and 3.3 miles of new road to the system. But they’re going to be doing road reconstruction and maintenance on 90 miles of roads.”

The Kootenai Forest already concluded the Black Ram project “may affect and is likely to affect grizzly bears.” But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded the project wouldn’t jeopardize the existence of grizzly bears, because bears would still exist in the other recovery areas. The Service hasn’t formally designated any critical habitat, so it concluded none would be affected. Neither agency considered cumulative effects from the other four logging projects in the Yaak.

“The FWS anticipates no mortality of grizzly bears, but rather some low level effect on the normal reproductive potential and/or feeding patterns of individual female grizzly bears in the area,” the FWS biological opinion said.

A 2020 Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee report estimates that the entire Cabinet-Yaak recovery area contains an average of three females with cubs each year. So even small negative effects on one female could affect the strength of the struggling Yaak population.

The recovery goal is to have at least 100 bears in the Cabinet-Yaak and to have genetic exchange between the Cabinet-Yaak and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem to avoid inbreeding problems. But biologists estimate that the likelihood that the population is stable or increasing is only slightly better than 50/50. Even without the influence of the proposed logging projects, humans caused the deaths of three females and six males between 2015 and 2020.

In its own 2021 species assessment, the Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that better conservation measures were needed to improve grizzly survival in the Cabinet-Yaak recovery area

Aside from the effect on wildlife, some question the justification for logging old-growth and mature forests.

With the effects of climate change becoming more dramatic each year, more scientists and activists are encouraging nations to leave mature forests alone, whether tropical or boreal.

“In Oregon, the biggest source of carbon is logging. Anytime you clearcut the forest, you release carbon,” said Mike Garrity, Alliance for the Wild Rockies executive director. “It’s not just old-growth that sequesters carbon; all trees do.”

U.S. forests are responsible for absorbing about 10% of U.S. carbon emissions, and mature trees tend to sequester more carbon than young trees. Eliminating mature trees allows more greenhouse gases to remain in the atmosphere, contributing to an increased likelihood of the very fires some logging projects claim to reduce.

In recognition of that fact, the White House issued an executive order in April that calls on federal land managers to conserve mature and old growth forests while enhancing climate resilience.

“This massive logging project will destroy old and mature trees that fight climate change, and it’s a major blow to North America’s most imperiled population of grizzlies. The Forest Service’s approval of the Black Ram project in Montana’s wild northwest corner shows that the agency either isn’t listening or doesn’t give a damn,” said Randi Spivak, Center for Biological Diversity public lands director.

The Yaak region is normally more like a Pacific-Northwest rainforest with its somewhat lower elevation and damp weather patterns. In the past, it’s seen its share of logging projects. But recently, it’s experienced a few years of higher-than-normal temperatures and drought. Removing the forest cover now could cause the land to dry out faster, making matters worse.

Yaak Valley Forest Council board chair and author Rick Bass said the ancient primary forest of Black Ram has never been logged, and the majority has never burned, "creating essentially a moss-covered wetland existing on the countless carcasses of other giants, now nurturing other giants." But clearcuts combined with climate change could damage the ecology of the Yaak.

“We are allowing the Kootenai National Forest to destroy our best hope for slowing the rate of global warming and frying what were once bejeweled wetlands with the blaze of bulldozed clearcuts. The prescriptions at Black Ram call for scraping away the biodiversity of centuries and millennia," Bass wrote in an email. "Ancient forests in wet alpine regions like Black Ram can store 1900 tons of carbon per hectare, century after century. The Kootenai National Forest just received more than $19 million for restoration forestry, in part because of Yaak Valley Forest Council’s and others’ advocating for restoration forestry funding around communities in Lincoln County, and Senator Tester securing that ask. For the Kootenai Forest to proceed however with the logging of old growth along the Canadian border, 40 miles from the nearest incorporated town in the name of “fuels reduction and “restoration” and “resilence” is climate madness, climate treason.”

Since several groups already submitted their objections to the Black Ram Project in 2020, Benson’s decision allows only one other response.

“We’re going to sue,” Garrity said.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.