By Rick Bass, Board of Directors, Yaak Valley Forest Council
Kootenai National Forest, Three Rivers District, Montana
In the farthest, most northwest corner of Montana, out of sight from the public eye—straddling the Canadian border—lie some of the last of the oldest and most mature and diverse forests of the Yaak Valley, on the Kootenai National Forest. The U.S. Forest Service has already bulldozed over 10,000 miles of road and logged a seemingly endless patchwork of clearcuts that surround these last untouched islands of old forests. Ancient larch, among the oldest in the world—600-800 years and still going strong—preside over a rich diversity of old-growth spruce as well as enormous centuries-old cedar, hemlock, and subalpine fir. Nearly every tree species found in northwest Montana is gathered together in the Black Ram region of the Yaak Valley, under the shelter of these larch “mother trees.”
And yet, Black Ram is caught in the crosshairs of the bygone Trump administration. This massive timber sale was created by Trump’s directive to regional foresters to increase logging volume by 40% and to do away with Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) wherever possible. The Forest Service is justifying Black Ram as being needed to create “forest resilience” to withstand potential future disturbance, such as drought. Their misguided solution is to effectively clearcut (what the Forest Service calls “regeneration harvest”) the old forest and plant ecologically impoverished tree plantations where these carbon-storing champions and natural springs once stood.
Despite the incoming Biden administration’s stated commitment to public lands management that addresses climate change, Black Ram remains the central proposal in a rolling thunder logging spree that will ultimately total over 313,000 acres in five adjacent logging projects on one Forest Service district alone—the Three Rivers District—still without a single EIS to evaluate the overall harm. The old carbon-storing champions of Black Ram are slated for the chainsaw at a time when we cannot afford to lose these old trees.
Within the shelter of the old forest: long trellises of lichens, old nurse logs bejeweled with emerald mosses, the forest floor soft and lush with the slowly decomposing giants and the billions of miles of underground mycelia communicating unknown signals at untold depths within and beneath the ancient roots. At Black Ram, we don’t know what we don’t know, other than that it is singular, magical: a place for scientists as well as artists and not a place for bulldozers.
Large portions of this untouched forest have never burned, suggesting strongly there is a self-sustaining protective mechanism, where the forest floor—comprised of enormous old trees, some of which have leaned down through the canopy but are still part of the forest, giving as much in repose as they did when standing—holds untold acre-feet of water. The old forest is sometimes fifteen degrees cooler compared to the temperature out in the blaze of Forest Service’s clearcut areas along the old forest’s edge.
The old and mature stands of trees at Black Ram possess incredible and perhaps unprecedented biological diversity in Montana; fully 25% of the state’s list of sensitive species are found on this one national forest. Its endangered grizzly bear populations—estimated at between just 20-25 individuals, with perhaps only three remaining females with cubs—exist at the lowest elevation of any grizzly population in the Lower 48. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has identified the Yaak grizzlies as the ”least resilient” population in North America and has admitted that the Black Ram project is “likely to adversely affect” grizzlies in the project area. The region is home also to lynx, wolverine, native trout, and extraordinarily vulnerable amphibians, which have already had ponds and creeks and other wetlands bulldozed in the creation of a “fire line” to the edge of the proposed logging units at Black Ram.
The proposed 95,000-acre Black Ram project would commercially log more than 4,000 acres, including clearcutting over 2000 acres and logging 700 acres of mature old-growth forest.
Only in the Black Ram forest is one likely to see a cedar tree growing out of the trunk of a larch—two species whose needs are wildly disparate. We don’t fully understand how this wonderful forest system functions. Fallen giants lie atop one another, settling down into layers of slow life-giving rot that supports the next generation.
The Biden administration needs to intervene on behalf of the American public, and the burning climate crisis, and designate the Black Ram area as a climate refuge, dedicated to the growth and recovery of old and mature forests—which once comprised as much as 50% of the Yaak Valley, but now compose only 10%—rather than dooming this unique inland rainforest to extinction.