For Aaron Peterson, exploring the 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 the state 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, it’s not bears that tingle Peterson’s spine. It’s the crystalline air and exhilarating calm.

This story also appeared in InsideClimate News

“It’s still wild,” said Peterson, executive director of the Yaak Valley Forest Council and an advocate for turning the Yaak 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. 

The project 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. Peterson’s group has joined a national coalition of conservation organizations trying 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 by reversing decisions and pending actions approved by the Trump administration, including the Black Ram sale.

“Leave it alone,” Peterson said. “Don’t mess with it.”

NEW ADMINISTRATION, NEW AGENDA? 

Reversing the Forest Service’s Black Ram decision would have meaning far beyond Montana’s wildlands. 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 valuing forests for their capacity to store carbon, not just the wood products they produce, would amount to a seismic change in the U.S. Forest Service, the behemoth Department of Agriculture 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 nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity. Spivak worries that the new administration doesn’t grasp the importance of older forests. “We don’t know where the Biden administration is on this,” she said. “We’ll see.”

Spivak’s group and the Yaak Valley Forest Council are among dozens of environmental organizations pressing Biden’s USDA to revisit every forest decision made during the Trump administration to make sure they comply with the new administration’s stated goals for conservation and climate. The groups have reason to be hopeful. During his first week in office, 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 can consider the climate impacts of fossil-fuel emissions generated from drilling. Another set a government-wide goal of protecting 30% of the nation’s land and water resources 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. A Center for Biological Diversity initiative called Saving Life on Earth calls for the U.S. government to spend $100 million to create 500 new parks, national wildlife refuges and national marine sanctuaries.

Then there’s the climate refuge idea advocated by the Yaak Valley Forest Council. The proposal would not only allow the Yaak River Valley to continue storing carbon in its undisturbed forests and soils, but to protect the wild landscape, the plant and animal life that depends on it and the area’s socio-cultural resources. 

“Not a single acre of the Yaak Valley is permanently protected,” according to the forest council’s web page, despite its rich species diversity, the connecting corridors it provides to migrating wildlife and the fact that all but 3% of it is public land. Wreck the habitat with logging, access roads and new trails, environmentalists say, and you’ve undercut the environment’s capacity to serve as a carbon sink that absorbs the greenhouse gases responsible for the climate crisis.

Peterson said the valley, where past logging has mostly focused around areas inhabited by people while leaving sensitive habitat intact, already plays 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.”

REVERSING COURSE

In a January letter, 39 environmental groups pressed the new administration to revisit nearly finalized logging decisions from the Trump administration. They said Biden’s climate and conservation goals are put at risk by projects from Alaska to Alabama. Black Ram is one of them.

Another 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 Trump-era 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, home to about two dozen bears that make up North America’s most imperiled population, advocates say. Those 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 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.

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 a 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% 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 its letter urging the Biden administration to reverse the January decision that allowed Black Ram, which is now one step from final Forest Service approval.

‘ACTIVE MANAGEMENT’ 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 policy decisions. The agency’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 scientists 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 what he called “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 executive order. Under the active management directive, federal agencies were ordered to ramp up timber harvests on public lands 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 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 nonprofit Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities favors “active forest management” — cutting and replanting woodlands as directed in Trump’s executive order — to mitigate climate change.

A 2.5-mile clearcut swath is seen from Pete Creek Road to the Canadian border. Anthony South, Yaak Landscape Photography, Yaak Valley Forest Council. Credit: Anthony South, Yaak Landscape Photography, Yaak Valley Forest Council

In a web post raising alarm about Biden’s 30 by 30 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 American 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% of the forests of Black Ram and 6% of the nearby Knotty Pine project — is part of a 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 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 has staffed its forest agencies with Obama-era officials who have what he described as a weak record of climate change advocacy. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is in the same position he held for Obama, and Vilsack’s senior adviser 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 is reviewing pending land management decisions with Biden’s priorities in mind.

The Biden administration is reportedly reexamining the Forest Service’s decision last fall to go forward with the Black Ram project in the Yaak Valley. 

“We’re keeping our fingers crossed that we have made the case to them that this sale is a bad sale, a destructive sale, and they need to change course,” Spivak said.

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Judy Fahys, Inside Climate News

Judy Fahys has reported on the West for decades from Washington, D.C., and Salt Lake City. After covering the environment, politics and business at the Salt Lake Tribune, she fell in love with audio storytelling as the environment and public lands reporter for NPR Utah/KUER. Previously, she spent an academic year as a Knight Science Journalism fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, High Country News and Outside magazine and aired on NPR. She serves on the board of the Society of Environmental Journalists.