As conservation groups emerge from court victorious in their mission to stop controversial logging projects, the future of the Yaak Valley and its timber industry remains in limbo
Thousands of feet above northwest Montana’s Yaak Valley, a six-seater EcoFlight airplane soared through cloudy skies. As passengers pressed camera lenses up to the vehicle’s port-hole shaped windows to photograph the dense forest below, Anthony South, Headwaters Director for the Yaak Valley Forest Council, narrated the journey.
“We’ll be going over the Kootenai River in between the Purcell Mountains and the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness,” South said. “Down there on the right, you can see that really weird plantation style planting, a lot of that was cleared by bulldozer … the river, the train tracks, and the highway serve as a major fragmentation for the grizzly bear populations in the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem.”
As environmental protection becomes increasingly politicized, the nation is paying special attention to the Yaak Valley – northwest Montana’s increasingly high-profile environmental battleground. Ongoing litigation in the region has serious implications for how densely forested states strike a balance between species conservation, climate change mitigation and supporting existing industries that keep working-class communities alive.
On the ground, working forests can appear thick and endless, but viewed from above, an unbroken swath of dense trees abruptly yields to barren ground. Jagged serrations form a patchwork of cuts, delineating the U.S. Forest Service’s (USFS) five major logging projects that all border one another in the Yaak Valley. The 72,550-acre NE Yaak project, 56,000-acre Buckhorn project, and 34,911-acre O’Brien project are currently underway while the 95,412-acre Black Ram project and 56,009-acre Knotty Pine project are being legally challenged.
The most contentious of these is the Black Ram, which overlaps with the Yaak’s tallest peak in the valley. Its litigation has garnered by far the most attention as several waves of lawsuits filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Yaak Valley Forest Council, WildEarth Guardians and Native Ecosystems Council have challenged the logging, arguing their potential to cause irreparable harm to old-growth trees and a vulnerable subpopulation of grizzly bears.
The controversy reached its boiling point in August when U.S. District Court Judge Donald W. Molloy ruled that the USFS failed to adequately account for the Black Ram’s negative consequences on the Yaak’s grizzly bear population and climate change more generally. The ruling threw a wrench in the USFS’ plans, giving them two options – address the judge’s concerns or appeal the ruling to a higher court within 60 days.
First proposed in 2017 and approved in 2022, the USFS outlined the Black Ram project with the goal of harvesting timber, treating fuels, conducting prescribed burns, restoring streams, and improving recreation.
The forest management is a routine part of USFS work; however, the most significant complicating factor in the Yaak is grizzly bears. The Yaak Valley is home to one of only six grizzly bear recovery areas in the lower 48 states, known as the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem. The USFS conceded that Black Ram’s call for 3,902 acres of logging would affect the 18 to 25 bears left in the Yaak portion of this ecosystem, with an additional 25 to 30 bears residing in the Cabinet Mountains, according to state and federal wildlife managers.
Among the biggest threats to the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly bears, state and federal wildlife managers say, is habituation to humans or human-food conditioning. But wildlife advocates say that another hurdle to recovering the vulnerable populations, as mandated by the Endangered Species Act, has been logging roads. Roads allow hunters and recreationists easy access and increase the opportunity for human-bear conflicts, they say, and the Black Ram would authorize 3.3 miles of new permanent road construction and the use of 90.3 miles of existing roads.
Ultimately, Molloy sided with the conservation groups on the grounds that the Black Ram Project violated the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act, agreeing that the defendants “failed to use the best available science in establishing an environmental baseline of the grizzly bear in the Project area” and “relied on a flawed biological opinion in approving the Project.”
Referencing the Forest Service’s own data illustrating that road closures are ineffective at preventing illegal access and pose a threat to recovering grizzlies, Molloy added that the federal agency ignored the recent uptick in female grizzly bear deaths, which would have changed its impact analysis. The USFS and U.S. Fish and Wild Service (FWS) relied on a statistical method for estimating numbers of grizzlies living in the area to demonstrate population increases without accounting for field report data that showed population numbers decreasing.
“While the FWS is not required to use the minimum counts method to create an environmental baseline, it may not ignore the issue of female mortality altogether because to do so ignores an important aspect of the problem that the agency itself acknowledges,” Molloy wrote. “Statistical modeling is scientifically accurate, but documented deaths of female bears cannot be ignored.”
Molloy further criticized the USFS and FWS for not conducting an in-depth climate study. He wrote that the agencies did not explain their determination using high-quality analysis or account for the short-term carbon losses that would result from cutting old-growth trees.
“USFS generally concludes that carbon as a result of the Project’s activities make up ‘only a tiny percentage of forest carbon stocks of the Kootenai National Forest and an infinitesimal amount of total forest stocks of the United States. Under this logic, USFS could always skirt ‘hard look’ analysis when doing a carbon impacts review by breaking up a project into small pieces and comparing them to huge carbon stocks.”
While Molloy’s decision marked a significant victory for the conservation groups, it’s far from the end of their fight, and in the months since the ruling they’ve ramped up community-awareness initiatives. The Yaak Valley Forest Council has forged a partnership with EcoFlight to organize educational flyovers for members of the public.
Ted Zukoski, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, argues that opposing the Black Ram is an easy cause for the public to rally behind – the litigation clearly outlines the harm to grizzly populations and centuries-old trees.
“Litigation is one tool in the toolbox, but public support, public outcry, and public involvement are also critical tools,” Zukoski said. “It is always better to be involved in a campaign that involves not just lawyers fighting in the courtroom, but people raising their voices on the outside.”