Rick Bass says he does not consider himself a “typical tree hugger.” The sixty-three-year-old Texas transplant is an avid hunter and started his professional life as an oil and gas geologist. But Bass fell in love with the Rocky Mountains in college, and in 1987, he moved to a “blank spot on the map” — the remote wilderness of the Yaak Valley in Northwestern Montana.
Bass, never quite at home anywhere else, found himself surrounded by a rugged landscape of rocky peaks and coniferous forests, including the Kootenai National Forest. To hear him tell it, there is nowhere quite like the Yaak Valley.
It wouldn’t take long for Bass to realize that the area was under constant threat from road construction and commercial logging, because of the untapped timber in the area. In 1997, Bass and three other social activists cofounded the Yaak Valley Forest Council (YVFC) to protect the natural habitat of the “sensitive, threatened, and endangered species” around him, including grizzly bears and lynxes.
More than two decades later, they’re still fighting — and they say the Joe Biden administration isn’t helping.
On Tuesday, president Joe Biden was one of 100-plus world leaders who pledged to end and reverse deforestation by 2030 during the twenty-sixth United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland. His Build Back Better framework, similarly, pledges “historic” investment in forest management.
Unfortunately, in the meantime, Biden has been plowing ahead with his predecessor’s approach to deforestation of public lands in the Kootenai National Forest.
On Biden’s watch, the US Forest Service is quietly moving forward with a series of Donald Trump–era plans to open up commercial logging in the Kootenai, despite the fact that the impacts of these projects were never subjected to rigorous analysis.
Bass says he was initially relieved about Biden’s presidential win in 2020, hoping it would bring about a shift away from the Trump administration’s permissive environmental stewardship. But the continuation of logging projects have left him feeling betrayed.
“This is not the man I voted for, and in my opinion, he is not keeping his word about science and climate change,” Bass says. “Our national forests absorb 12 percent of CO2. Please do the math, Joe.”
“The Spawn of a Trump Executive Order”
Located south of Canada’s boreal forest, the Kootenai is a picturesque old-growth forest, meaning it contains trees that are hundreds of years old. Douglas fir, subalpine fir, lodgepole pine, western red cedar, and other trees make up its canopies. The ecosystem is one of the most diverse in the state of Montana, serving as a vital corridor for a number of threatened species, including grizzlies.
Wayne Kasworm, a wildlife biologist for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, tells us that there are fifty-five to sixty grizzlies in the region. The region’s bear population has been listed as endangered for years, and Kasworm says that for the population to stabilize, there would need to be at least 100 bears in the area connected to surrounding populations either in the United States or Canada.
“Continued growth is dependent upon low levels of human-caused mortality and the continued habitat protections put in place, largely through motorized access management,” says Kasworm, referring to a system for establishing limits on road density and keeping core areas free of roads.
Plans from the Forest Service could complicate that goal. In November 2020, after months of president Donald Trump complaining about agency mismanagement, the Forest Service created a new rule to exempt many logging projects from rigorous reviews.
The rule did so by relaxing the standards of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). As the Washington Post noted at the time, “The rule change . . . gives Forest Service officials broad authority to use loopholes called categorical exclusions to bypass NEPA requirements.” The Post noted: “Categorical exclusions are projects deemed to have no environmental impact, and as the rule is written, they can be applied across the nearly 200 million acres of forest that the Forest Service manages.”
According to Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies (AFWR), which works to protect the Northern Rockies from habitat destruction, the rule was a culmination of decades of political support for the logging industry, despite environmental concerns, that dates back to the presidency of Ronald Reagan.
The support hasn’t been limited to Republican administrations. Garrity says that logging “really went up under [Barack] Obama.”
Out of the new Trump logging rule arose the nearly 100,000-acre Black Ram Project. Currently in the public comment period, Black Ram would authorize commercial harvesting of four thousand acres in the Kootenai National Forest, including clear cuts of roughly 580 acres of hundred-year-old trees. The area to be logged would include parts of the national forest’s grizzly bear recovery zone, says Kasworm.
The YVFC is one of several environmental groups that oppose the project, which the council’s cofounder, Bass, characterizes as a “Trump zombie sale,” borrowing the term from environmentalist Bill McKibben.
“It’s the spawn of a Trump executive order directing the Forest Service to increase the volume of logging by 40 percent on public lands,” says Bass.
Bass notes that “there are now five current or upcoming contiguous projects” on the Three Rivers Ranger District of the Kootenai, which totals more than 314,000 acres, and he says that none have undergone rigorous environmental review. He calls the area “the meat of the Yaak,” explaining that it represents “a third of a million acres, in the habitat of the most endangered grizzly bear population on the continent.”
Kasworm is less concerned about the project. “The Black Ram timber sale has gone through consultation with the US Fish and Wildlife Service,” he says. “It is the service’s opinion that the effects of the proposed Black Ram Project on grizzly bears are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the grizzly bear.”
The project may result in adverse effects to a few individual female grizzly bears as a consequence of the potential disturbance and/or displacement related to the temporary increases in motorized access in the action area that could displace grizzly bears from otherwise suitable habitats.
“We Should Not Be Cutting Them”
Despite opposition from environmental groups and Biden’s recent statements about deforestation and protecting public lands, it is very possible that Black Ram moves ahead.
Under Biden, the Forest Service already approved the controversial Ripley Project in May, which authorized commercial logging of nearly seventeen square miles as well as road and trail building in the lower end of “the Yaak” — a region Bass says includes “all the lands lying north of the Kootenai River, east of Idaho, south of Canada, and west of the artificial impoundment of Lake Koocanusa.” Roughly 30 percent of that logging would involve clear cuts.
Bass is even more concerned with Black Ram. He explains that the project impacts “the oldest forest in Montana, and the most mysterious, with large sections having never burned; possessing the oldest trees; holding beneath its roots the most water.”
He adds that the logging project is a transnational issue, because Yaak grizzlies go back and forth across the border with Canada.
The Forest Service claims Black Ram and Ripley projects are necessary to reduce the risk of wildfires in the region and promote healthy forest growth. But studies indicate that logging can actually increase the severity of wildfires.
According to expert analysis by the Bushfire Recovery Project, the likelihood of a crown burn, in which the tree canopy burns, is roughly 10 percent in old-growth forests, compared to 70 percent in forests that have been logged in the past fifteen years, since such projects trigger an upswell of young fire-prone trees, dry out plants and soil, and increase wind speeds through the forests.
Reducing fire risk isn’t the only reason to protect old-growth trees like those in the Kootenai National Forest, says Joan Maloof, executive director of the Old-Growth Forest Network, which also opposes the Black Ram Project.
“Old-growth forests, in particular, are rare and precious, and we should not be cutting them,” says Maloof. “We only have 4 percent left [of these old-growth forests] in the western U.S. Old-growth forests are habitat for thousands of species, and they store more carbon than any other type of forest, keeping it out of the atmosphere. Logging releases that carbon.”
To try to stop the Black Ram Project, AFWR has already filed an administrative objection to the plan. The group is also willing to go to court over the matter; in late September, Garrity’s organization filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Ripley Project, and he says it is likely to do the same over the Black Ram Project.
“We can’t sue on that one until the forest supervisor signs a decision,” says Garrity. “And he has not yet done so.”
To Bass, the Forest Service’s Black Ram plan is a desecration. Archaeologists estimate that human beings have been in the Yaak Valley for at least eight thousand years, but the ecosystem itself is far older. Formed by glaciers thousands of years ago, the area still bears the remnants of ancient history. For that reason, Bass says standing in the Kootenai is “humbling.”
“It changes your scale of time, the way we often do when we’re in the presence of something that is sublime and complicated and beautiful,” he says. Walking through the cedar fronds and fir trees, he knows how important it is to tread carefully.
As he puts it, “You’re very aware of the strangeness underfoot — that you’re walking across the carcasses of millennia.”