Federal judge halts ‘Black Ram’ logging project in Kootenai National Forest

Judge criticizes U.S. Forest Service for not following science

By: - August 19, 2023 8:13 am

A female grizzly with two cubs (Photo by Glenn Phillips via www.glennphillipsphoto.com. | Used with permission).

A federal judge has halted an expansive logging project in the Kootenai National Forest, often referred to as the “Black Ram Project,” after finding that the U.S. Forest Service made critical errors in evaluating the project, especially its impact on grizzly bears.

The Black Ram Project encompasses more than 90,000 acres of federal forest land, while clear-cutting some areas, harvesting timber from others, and completing more than 90 miles of road construction. The U.S. Forest Service, along with the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, defended the project, saying it is necessary for the forest health because of the increased risk of catastrophic fire, as well as the economic benefit the project would bring.

However U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy said in his 62-page ruling that the Forest Service had violated several federal laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act in approving the project, and sharply criticized the U.S. Forest Service for not using up-to-date information or the best science available.

Molloy criticized the United States Forest Service for not following the law, which requires the agency to use the best science available at the time when considering the logging impacts to grizzlies. The forest service relied on a statistical method for estimating the number of grizzlies living in the area, projecting a modest increase in the population there, while actual data based on field reports showed the number of bears dwindling.

“Statistical modeling is scientifically accurate, but document deaths of female bears cannot be ignored,” Molloy said in his ruling. “The agency cannot ignore critical data without explanation.”

Because the agency either ignored or discounted materials presented by the plaintiffs – which included the Center for Biological Diversity, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, and the Native Ecosystems Council – Molloy ruled the biological opinion on grizzly bears, prepared by the United State Fish and Wildlife Service, was also “flawed,” and the forest service’s reliance on it was “arbitrary and capricious.”

Molloy also said the agency went to great lengths to twist data to arrive at a conclusion that supported the project.

“Agencies may not rely on factual assumptions the agencies know to be incorrect to dodge their statutory and regulatory duties to obtain, disclose, and analyze the best scientific and commercial data available in assessing cumulative effects,” Molloy said.

The U.S. Forest Service has a policy of not commenting on current or pending litigation.

Molloy pointed out that in addition to relying on faulty grizzly population estimates, the forest service’s proposal also failed to take into account roads that impact grizzly habitat.

“Because the USFS does not include illegal motorized road use that it knows occurs into its calculation, the court is being asked to ‘chisel that which must be precise from what the agency has left vague and indecisive,’” he said.

The plaintiff groups said that the U.S. Forest Service knows about unauthorized motor vehicle use in the forest, and knows of roads that are used, even if not documented, but failed to consider them in the plan. Molloy said that gave an incomplete and inaccurate picture of forest management, and human activities on bear habitat.

“The court found that the miles were properly omitted from the calculation ‘assuming the closures were effective,’ but that the eight years of data on road closure effectiveness from the area proved that the closures were not, in fact, effective,” Molloy said. “For example, in 2020, the USFS found 32 breached barriers and repaired none of them and found 40 breached gates and repaired about a quarter of them. The Yaak Valley Forest Council also documented 45 instances of ineffective barriers and gates in 2020 and 2021 that environmental analysis did not disclose.”

That wasn’t the only reason why the judge halted the logging project immediately.

He said the plan also failed to accurately characterize the climate impacts the project would have. For example, the U.S. Forest Service said that the short-term loss of carbon, via carbon sequestration, would be outweighed by future healthier forest growth.

“This is assertion is not backed up by a scientific explanation,” Molloy said. “While the USFS did address climate change in the environmental assessment through the Forest and Project Carbon Plans, merely discussing carbon impacts and concluding that they will be minor does not equate to a ‘hard look.’ The National Environmental Policy Act requires more than a statement of platitudes, it requires appraisal to the public of the actual impacts of the individual project. With all in agreement that climate change as a result of carbon emissions is an increasingly serious national and global problem, USFS has the responsibility to give the public an accurate picture of what impact a project may have, no matter how ‘infinitesimal’ they believe it may be.

“They did not do so here.”

The groups fighting the Forest Service applauded the decision.

“For decades the Kootenai National Forest has been clearcutting our oldest, largest trees,” said Rick Bass, director of the Yaak Valley Forest Council. “The Forest Service is deliberately undercutting the Biden administration’s commitment to battling climate change. We shouldn’t have had to fight for seven years over such a ridiculous project, and we’re grateful for the support we’ve received.”

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.

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