Black Ram Project under fire again

The Western News | October 16, 2020 7:00 AM

After receiving a federal opinion on wildlife impacts, U.S. Forest Service officials reopened a controversial timber harvesting project for public comment.

Kirsten Kaiser, district ranger at the Troy Ranger Station, issued a draft decision notice for the Black Ram Project on Sept. 28. The objection period for the timber harvest, which encompasses an area of 95,412 acres northwest of Troy, will remain open until Nov. 13.

Forest Service officials published the notice following their receipt of a biological opinion from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Aug. 28 opinion deemed that the Forest Service’s land management plan “is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the grizzly bear.”

Forest Service officials were required to seek the opinion following a lawsuit brought by the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. While the Black Ram Project was initially open for objections in December 2019, the ruling obligated Forest Service officials to shelve the timber harvest plans in February until they received the FWS opinion.

Despite the federal assessment, at least one organization has already announced its opposition to the project due to the impacts it could have on grizzly bear populations. The day after Kaiser filed the decision, the Yaak Valley Forest Council responded with a press release condemning the project.

The group expressed anger that the Forest Service designated the Black Ram Project as “may affect, likely to adversely affect” grizzly bears, their habitat and their status under the Endangered Species Act in the decision notice, but is moving forward with the work.

In their assessment, Forest Service officials said the “may affect, likely to adversely affect” designation was chosen because not all Cabinet-Yaak Recovery Zone Bear Management Units under their jurisdiction met grizzly bear motorized route density and core standards. The management units within the Black Ram Project area, however, do meet these standards, according to the decision.

“The project actions themselves are not likely to have a significant effect on grizzly bears,” officials wrote in the notice.

In their press release, council members also opposed plans to add features to the Pacific Northwest Trail, citing a July ruling by a Montana federal judge in an ongoing lawsuit. Blocking an attempt by Forest Service officials to dismiss claims that the agency had mismanaged the trail, the judge wrote that there was a reasonable probability that grizzly bear conservation could be threatened if federal officials did not prepare a plan to manage the PNT.

The lawsuit, initiated by the forest council, alleged that forest service officials were required nine years ago to complete a management plan.

While Kaiser said she could not comment on the litigation, she said Forest Service officials had taken into account public input when deciding what features to add to the trail. Trimming stumps and softening the edges of harvest boundaries were among the design features listed in the environmental assessment. At the request of the Forest Council, Kaiser said a harvest unit near the trail was significantly reduced.

“We do listen to the public and we do make modifications,” Kaiser said.

Council members also attacked the project for allegedly clear-cutting old growth forest at the headwater of the Yaak River and for relying on an unscientific environmental impact statement to support the project.

Kaiser noted the environmental assessment was thorough and put together by an interdisciplinary team created to assess the impacts of the project. Kaiser pushed back against claims that the project would clear-cut old growth, saying that the medium age of the trees in that area was between 80 and 100 years old.

After reviewing public comment, Forest Service officials found that many residents would like to see more management in the area covered by the Black Ram Project.

“Any issue is going to have people who are in favor and those who aren’t,” she said.

After the Davis Fire burned over 6,000 acres in the Black Ram Project area in 2018, Kaiser said many residents argued that Forest Service officials weren’t managing the area properly.

State Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Libby, said the forest in the Black Ram Project area is not pristine wilderness — despite the assertions of environmental groups. Without proper management in the area, Gunderson said wildfires could threaten the grizzly bear core habitat that the forest council and other groups are fighting to preserve.

The Black Ram Project proposal includes commercial harvesting on 3,912 acres and non-harvest fuels treatment on 7,553 acres. Forest Service officials anticipate constructing 3.3 miles of permanent roads, 0.2 miles of temporary roads, 32 miles of road storage, maintaining 90 miles of road and decommissioning 23 miles.

The proposal also includes creating fuel breaks on 76 acres, harvest treatment on 579 acres, burning old-growth on 342 acres and creating openings exceeding 40 acres in size with 36 harvest units.