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Support for the Black Ram Project

| July 22, 2022 7:00 AM

Last year's South Yaak Fire scorched over 12,000 acres of the lower Yaak on the Kootenai National Forest, underscoring the need for active forest management to reduce future wildfire risks.

The evacuations and the cost of placing fire-fighting resources at homes remind us that impacts from wildfire are real. Evacuees experienced fear, anxiety and a variety of health issues.

In 2017, the Caribou Fire started in the Yaak in Caribou Creek and burned through 24,752 acres in just days. Pushed by winds, the fire reduced trees to matchsticks and gutted the Young Creek drainage, literally cooking fish in the creek, until it reached the West Kootenai Amish community.

The fire made a 472-mile run in just a few hours giving people little time to evacuate. Fortunately, no human lives were lost, but 11 homes were destroyed and many outbuildings.

Years of fire suppression and lack of proper forest management have changed forest composition, and increased tree mortality and fuel loads.

The stage is set for continued large fires in the Yaak unless we implement treatments to turn the tide. The Black Ram project was developed to address the very conditions that are impacting the forest health.

Using science-based forestry tools including prescribed fire, mechanical and hand thinning, treatments will promote more fire-resistant tree species.

The treatments will protect and maintain old growth, improve big game winter range, promote huckleberry growth for grizzlies, and improve aquatic habitat. Additionally, the project provides for trail and other recreational improvements.

The project is supported by numerous residents of the Yaak, the Kootenai (Ktunaxa) Tribe, Lincoln County, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and other community leaders.

Unfortunately, the project has been subject to litigation and many misleading statements. The Forest Service and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service determined that Black Ram would have no negative impact grizzly bears.

In fact, the project is designed to protect and improve habitat and forage conditions for a range of species.

Opponents of the project have also mischaracterized the project, claiming the Forest Service is clearcutting old-growth forests.

Anyone that is informed on current old growth management practices knows that such statements are disingenuous rhetoric. Clearcutting of old-growth is illegal.

Black Ram is designed to protect old-growth stands by thinning overstocked stands to remove less fire-tolerant species and restore stand conditions that favor fire-adapted, long-lived species including ponderosa pine, western larch and western white pine, not only keeping the large trees but creating conditions for the remaining trees to grow larger.

Non-commercial treatments include slashing of small understory trees, will reduce ladder fuels and risk of stand-replacing crown fires, further protecting old growth. This treatment is consistent with the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation rule.

Black Ram allows for timber harvest on 3,900 acres, or 4.2 percent of the project area, over 10 years, amounting to an average annual harvest of 390 acres. Over 44,765 acres of forest have burned in the Yaak since 2015, averaging 6,395 acres per year over a seven-year period (2015-2021), and 16 times more acres than are scheduled for harvest.

Treatments will also help protect people and properties in the Yaak by decreasing wildfire risk in the Wildland Urban Interface where homes, businesses, historical and recreation sites, and infrastructure are located.

Black Ram's ecologically based treatments will help the Yaak's forests adapt to conditions of climate change. We can act and help our forests sequester and store carbon, or we can do nothing and watch our forests go up in smoke adding to climate change. The choice should be simple.

If you support healthy, resilient, diverse forests, quality wildlife habitat, safer communities, better public access, and excellent recreational opportunities, please join our public lands managers and leaders in our indigenous and conservation communities in supporting the Black Ram project.

Sincerely,

Lincoln County Commissioners Jerry Bennett, Josh Letcher, Brent Teske