Viewpoint: Northern Rockies ecosystem project needed today
As a conservation scientist, I’m blessed with a three-decade career spanning many of the most important forests on Earth. I became interested in the Kootenai National Forest and the Northern Rockies in general during the early 1990s when the visionary Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA) was born. Congress should pass this bold act to protect the five-state region critical to iconic grizzlies and wolves and the region’s future.
I toured the Black Ram project within the NREPA area last year at the request of the Yaak Valley Forest Council (YVFC) to determine if Forest Service logging projects were within old-growth forests. The agency claimed none of the logging units qualified. My detailed observations proved them wrong, confirming how logging would irreparably harm ancient forests within this climate refuge.
The Forest Service was set to rev up chainsaws and bulldozers on nearly 4,000 acres of commercial logging (6.3 square miles), including clearcutting 1,700 acres (2.7 square miles), and destroying hundreds of acres of old forests. With 3 miles of new roads and 90 miles of reconstructed ones, the project would have dramatically increased road impacts to the largely isolated Cabinet-Yaak grizzly population, further threatening prospects for recovery.
I was thrilled by the August 22 decision of federal district court judge Donald Molloy to halt the project over these concerns and the substantial carbon polluting footprint from expansive logging and road building. My scientific analysis was helpful in exposing the agencies’ fallacious claims about inconsequential impacts and emissions. The judge ruled that their analysis created an irresponsible, do-nothing attitude, whereby the actions of no one person or agency matter. Thankfully, this exposed the Forest Service’s shoddy climate analysis that also ignored the unique capacity of ancient forests to absorb and store atmospheric carbon for centuries.
This is an important time for the Black Ram Climate Refuge and the Northern Rockies in general. With climate chaos spinning super-charged hurricanes, massive flooding, heat domes, and even fires in Hawaii, we all need to be part of the solution, no matter how insignificant our actions may seem at first.
We all have a collective stake in whether the climate gets a heck of a lot worse, or we turn this around in time. Based on the starkest climate warnings from the Intergovernmental Plan on Climate Change, to avoid the worst of climate chaos, we must truly think globally while acting locally. The region’s older forests and intact areas hold important keys to climate security.
The Black Ram Climate Refuge should be protected as a key NREPA Climate Refuge and critical travel corridor for wildlife traversing the Northern Rockies in search of cooler respite from the surrounding sea of hot, flammable clearcuts. President Biden could jump start this process with a strong nationwide federal rulemaking that prohibits logging in older forests as part of US commitments to cut emissions across all sectors, including forestry, and to slowing the global extinction freefall.
Protecting the area is in line with the White House’s “road map for nature-based solutions,” while allowing the Forest Service to concentrate on fuel reduction measures nearest homes. The president could seize the carpe diem moment for older forests because they are way too vital to clean water, climate, recreation, and wildlife, all of which will be increasingly in demand in a rapidly changing world. The president started this process on Earth Day 2022, directing federal agencies to inventory the nation’s older forests for conservation. He now needs to finish the job with lasting protections.
The 265,000-acre Black Ram Climate Refuge is an important cog in the 24 million-acre NREPA proposal that needs full protection for its unbridled beauty, charismatic wildlife, and climate importance. Judge Molloy’s decision provides the Forest Service with a chance to change direction while the overall Rockies protection effort gets moved up in national importance.
Dominick A. DellaSala, Ph. D., is an award-winning scientist with over 300 peer-reviewed science articles, and 9 co-authored books, including “Temperate and Boreal Rainforests of the World: Ecology and Conservation” and the “Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix.”