For Aaron Peterson, exploring the chattering Yaak River and wandering the forests surrounding it is no more complicated than clipping on cross-country skis outside his front door. Roaming this northwestern corner of Montana sometimes feels risky when the weather’s warm because of the grizzlies in one of the Lower 48’s wildest places. But on winter days, when bears are hibernating beneath fresh snowfall, they are not what gives Peterson spine-tingling chills. Instead, it’s the crystalline air and exhilarating calm.
“It’s still wild,” said Peterson, executive director of the Yaak Valley Forest Council and an advocate for keeping the Yaak exactly this way by turning it into a “Climate Refuge,” a sanctuary for wildlife and old forests.
But that idea is threatened by the Kootenai National Forest’s plan for what’s called the “Black Ram” project in the Yaak Valley along the Canadian border. Blueprints for “active forest management” on more than 95,000 acres would allow a patchwork of commercial logging on about 4,000 acres that’s expected to yield about 57 million board feet of timber, as well as trail and habitat improvements and the removal of underbrush that could fuel wildfire. The project was at the verge of final approval when environmentalists began pressing the Biden administration to stop it and recognize the area as a tool in the fight against climate change.
Black Ram is just one of dozens of U.S. Forest Service decisions that would allow clear cutting, commercial logging, pipeline construction, road building and reservoir creation in national forests across the country. And Peterson’s group has joined a nationwide coalition of conservation organizations fighting to preserve not only the Yaak Valley, but wild forests across the country.
The Biden administration, they argue, should start using forestland as a tool for addressing climate change. And that effort should begin with reversing decisions and pending actions approved by the Trump administration, they contend. That includes Black Ram.
“Leave it alone,” said Peterson, simplifying the legal and bureaucratic arguments. “Don’t mess with it.”
New Administration, New Agenda for Forests?
Reversing the Forest Service’s all-but-finalized decisions on Black Ram will have meaning far beyond the wildlands of Montana. Environmentalists and extractive industries alike see forest management decisions as a window into the new administration’s thinking about conservation and the use of forestlands to address the climate crisis. Something as seemingly simple as starting to value forests for their capacity to store carbon, as opposed to the wood products they produce, would amount to a seismic change in the U.S. Forest Service, the Department of Agriculture behemoth of a bureaucracy that has evolved over more than a century.
Environmentalists are pushing hard for that shift.
“It’s a 180-degree turn, but it is doable,” said Randi Spivak, public lands director at the national conservation group the Center for Biological Diversity, who worries that the new administration doesn’t grasp how important older forests are. “We don’t know where the Biden administration is on this. We’ll see.”
Spivak’s group, the Yaak Valley Forest Council and dozens of environmental organizations that want every forest decision made during the Trump administration reviewed to make sure they comply with the Biden administration’s stated goals for conservation and climate. The groups are hopeful about their chances partly because, during his first week in office, President Joe Biden signed executive orders signaling the end of the previous administration’s “energy dominance” agenda for public lands.
One executive order paused oil and gas leasing on federal lands until a Cabinet-level review could be done on the climate impacts of fossil-fuel emissions from drilling there. Another set a government-wide goal of protecting natural landscapes and biodiversity over 30 percent of federal land and waters by 2030—an initiative known as “30-by-30.” Both directives tasked federal leaders throughout the government with developing strategies “to safeguard our health, food supplies, biodiversity, and the prosperity of every community.”
Environmental groups have been thinking about this sort of conservation for years. The Center for Biological Diversity has an initiative called Saving Life on Earth. It calls for the U.S. spending $100 million to create 500 new parks, national wildlife refuges and national marine sanctuaries, just like 30-by-30. But it goes even farther, pushing to conserve 50 percent of U.S. land and waters by 2050.
Then, there’s the Climate Refuge idea advocated by the Yaak Valley Forest Council and, especially, its famous board chairman, nature writer, Rick Bass. The designation would not only allow the Yaak River Valley to continue storing carbon in its undisturbed forests and soils, but to “remain relatively buffered from climate change over time and enable the persistence of coveted physical, ecological, and socio-cultural resources.”
Yet “not a single acre of the Yaak Valley is permanently protected” despite its species diversity, the important connecting corridors it provides to migrating wildlife and the fact that all but 3 percent of it is public land, according to the forest council’s web page. Wreck the habitat with logging, access roads and new trails, the group suggests, and you’ve undercut the environment’s powerful capacity to serve as a carbon sink that absorbs the greenhouse gases blamed for the climate crisis.
“The Forest Service has failed the land and the people, in our opinion, on this project,” Bass told Montana Public Radio after Kootenai National Forest officials snubbed the groups’ objections to Black Ram.
Peterson said the Yaak Valley, where past logging has mostly focused around areas inhabited by people while leaving sensitive habitat intact, already plays the climate and conservation roles the Biden administration has in mind for public lands. “It’s storing carbon; it’s already a natural climate solution,” he said. “It’s already natural infrastructure, a nature-based solution, a biodiversity hotspot.”
Fighting Forest Service Plans
Conservationists have dogged the new administration to revisit all the forest decisions finalized during the Trump administration. They say Biden’s climate and conservation goals are at risk because of nearly finalized logging plans in a host of states from Alaska to Alabama, as part of projects with names like “End of the World” in Idaho and “Frozen Moose” in Montana. And, of course, there is Black Ram.
The groups have also taken aim at past decisions. A letter last month from more than two dozen environmental groups cites Biden’s first-day executive order directing all federal agencies to prepare to dismantle any Trump administration health and environmental regulations that conflict with the new administration’s objectives.
“Those ‘important national objectives’ include the use of the best scientific information, processes that ensure the integrity of federal decision-making, environmental justice, reducing carbon emissions and bolstering resilience to climate change, and restoring protections for our national treasures on public lands,” the letter says, “We heartily support these objectives.”
Northwestern Montana contains about one-quarter of the state’s sensitive, threatened or endangered wildlife species and one of the nation’s six grizzly bear recovery areas, with about two dozen bears that make up North America’s most imperiled population, advocates say. These wildlands provide vital habitat for cold-loving pikas, westslope cutthroat and Columbia redband trout, among other species that would be at risk from routine Forest Service activities like logging and road-building.
But the Trump administration’s Forest Service opted against an in-depth “environmental impact statement” and instead relied on a less rigorous “environmental assessment” when it decided last fall to allow Black Ram to proceed. The Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians and the Yaak forest council quickly filed a legal protest.
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The conservation groups accused the Forest Service of approving clear cutting “under the guise of restoration” and of ignoring the cumulative climate impacts of other nearby logging projects, one of which calls for a single clear-cut over one-third of a square mile in size. Planting seedlings and saplings where old growth and mature forests used to stand means losing up to 70 percent of the forest’s carbon-capturing power until the young trees mature, Spivak said.
“The climate crisis is the overriding environmental issue of our time, threatening to drastically modify ecosystems, alter coastlines, worsen extreme weather events, degrade public health, and cause massive human displacement and suffering,” the groups wrote in a January letter urging the Biden administration to reverse the Forest Service decision that almost permitted Black Ram to proceed.
Trump’s ‘Active Management’ Push Ignored Climate
Although in recent years the climate crisis has grown in the public consciousness and political dialogue, the idea of using forestland as a tool to slow global warming has never been a significant factor in national policy. The Forest Service’s “multiple-use, sustained yield” mandate has traditionally been interpreted to promote harvesting timber from the nation’s forests the same way the Agriculture Department prioritizes other crops on the nation’s farmlands.
But that thinking is starting to change across public lands overseen by the Forest Service, an area larger than the state of Texas. A group of more than 200 scientists wrote last May to key congressional leaders and cautioned against continuing to neglect the value of healthy forests in the climate fight.
“The growing consensus of scientific findings is that, to effectively mitigate the worst impacts of climate change, we must not only move beyond fossil fuel consumption but must also substantially increase protection of our native forests in order to absorb more CO2 from the atmosphere and store more, not less, carbon in our forests,” they said.
The group added that annual carbon emissions from logging in U.S. forests are comparable to combined emissions from the residential and commercial sectors combined, with logging in U.S. forests emitting 617 million tons of CO2 each year.
Meanwhile, climate considerations were absent from key moves by the Trump administration. Nearly two years before signing the One Trillion Trees Initiative promoting tree-planting to conserve “the wonder of God’s creation,” Trump signed an executive order on Dec. 21, 2018 promoting “active management” to improve forest health and community safety. The word “climate” cannot be found in either directive. Instead, federal agencies were ordered to ramp up public lands timber harvests to 4.4 billion board feet.
“Actions must be taken across landscapes to … enhance fuel reduction and forest-restoration projects that protect life and property, and to benefit rural economies through encouraging utilization of the by-products of forest restoration,” the Trump executive order says.
That approach mirrors the thinking in many western communities and in the forest products industry, which regard objections to projects like Black Ram as bad for the environment and don’t hesitate to bring climate into the discussion. For instance, the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit, Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, favors “active forest management”—cutting and replanting woodlands as directed in Trump’s executive order—to mitigate climate change.
In a web post raising alarm about Biden’s 30-by-30 executive order, the group noted that wildfires burned more than 4.9 million acres of U.S. Forest Service lands last year and devastated endangered species populations in the West.
“If the goal is conservation,” the post said, “shouldn’t we accelerate the use of active forest management tools to help mitigate the risks of wildfire, insects and disease on these federal lands?”
Sara Ghafouri, staff attorney for the American Forest Resource Council, a trade group affiliated with Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, said federal land managers recognize the critical risks posed by beetles, drought, wildfire and poor management to forests and nearby communities. Harvesting timber from small areas—5.4 percent of the forests of Black Ram and 6 percent of nearby Knotty Pine—is part of the win-win of making forests more resilient to both wildfire and climate change, she said.
“Our industry is trying to be part of the climate solution,” she said. “If we’re really trying to address carbon on a broader scale and reduce our greenhouse gases, we need to think about harvested wood products as being part of the carbon solution, and that involves management of land.”
But, for conservationists, neither the nation’s wildfire problem nor the related climate crisis can be solved by logging. Spivak said carbon-storage capacity and biodiversity are lost when old forests are cut down.
“You don’t get those back in the blink of an eye,” she said. “No little tree seedling is going to replace those giants—certainly not in anyone’s lifetime.”
In the end, the lofty arguments on either side might not amount to much, said Andy Stahl, a longtime forest conservation advocate who is executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.
He’s not expecting much change in a Biden administration that’s staffed its forest agencies with Obama-era officials with a weak record of climate change advocacy. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is in the same position he served in for Obama. And Vilsack’s senior advisor on climate is fellow Obama-era alum, Robert Bonnie, who helped oversee the Forest Service.
The Forest Service did not respond to a request for comment about how Black Ram and other forest projects fit into the Biden climate agenda. Instead, USDA spokesman Larry Moore sent an email stating that the agency was reviewing pending and past decisions with Biden’s priorities in mind. That’s just what the environmentalists have requested for the Black Ram project in the Yaak Valley.
“We’re keeping our fingers crossed,” said Spivak, “that we have made the case to them that this sale is a bad sale, a destructive sale, and they need to change course.”
Conservation groups and the timber industry expect they’ll know more about Biden’s plans for Black Ram and other forests by the end of the month.