President Biden’s commitment to conserve 30% of U.S. land and ocean by 2030 offers hope that major changes could soon be on the horizon for federal agencies in charge of managing public lands. That is good news for imperiled species in the northern Rockies. The region contains some of the last vestiges of intact wildlife habitat that desperately needs immediate protection as the U.S. Forest Service continues to implement the destructive priorities of the last administration.
Donald Trump’s vastly inflated timber production targets still drive Forest Service projects, which include adding and opening more logging roads in areas crucial for grizzly bear recovery. They also include logging in roadless areas and places where trees are hundreds of years old. In fact, the agency plans to cut whole swaths of forests to create “openings” that look pretty much like clearcuts from decades long past.
Opening abandoned roads in roadless areas undermines the very purposes of their protection, which includes providing strongholds for threatened and endangered species. Roadless areas near and along the Montana/Idaho border provide essential stepping stones for wandering grizzlies leaving the official recovery zones within the Cabinet-Yaak and North Continental Divide Ecosystems. Without safe passage, grizzly bears cannot find new territory or new mates, furthering genetic isolation. Instead of improving roadless areas and increasing habitat security for grizzlies, the Forest Service continues to push damaging projects that impede connectivity and recovery.
For example, as part of its Sawmill-Petty Project, the Lolo National Forest proposed adding 142 miles of roads to its official transportation system, in addition to logging 434 acres in the Garden Point Roadless Area, which includes a 69-acre clearcut it euphemistically labeled a “regeneration harvest.” Even worse, the Redd Bull Project would log 1,425 acres, which includes more than a square mile of clearcuts in the Marble Point Roadless Area, while also “opening” 735 acres of old-growth forest throughout the project area. To access all the logging units, the Forest Service would reopen overgrown roads not utilized since the 1990s, even though rules for roadless areas prohibit their reconstruction. Both projects follow the recently approved Soldier-Butler Project that contains one of just two official grizzly bear connectivity areas in Montana. Here, the Lolo National Forest approved opening abandoned roads in order to log across 5,510 acres (including a 114-acre clearcut).
The Forest Service asserts all of this chainsawing and bulldozing is necessary to “reduce catastrophic wildfire risk” and “increase resilience to insects and disease,” while claiming the clear-cuts simply “mimic natural disturbance patterns.” Yet, 100 years of Forest Service active management has, in fact, halted forests from acting like forests, which need big wildfires, insects, disease and other ecological processes to naturally regenerate and provide quality wildlife habitat. The fact that we are now seeing the Forest Service use past mismanagement as an excuse to log more forests today is a testament to the agency’s hubris in asserting it can replicate mother nature. It is also a rejection of science that shows long-term drought and increased temperatures due to the climate crisis influence wildfires more than any other factor.
Contrary to assertions by the Forest Service and timber proponents, no amount of logging, especially far from people’s homes, is going to keep communities safe from fast moving, high intensity wildfires. Pretending otherwise will continue to imperil people’s homes, as well as fish and wildlife in Montana and throughout the northern Rockies.
President Biden has an opportunity to not only protect crucial grizzly bear habitat, roadless areas and old growth forests, but also to rein in an agency that believes restoration requires a chainsaw.
Adam Rissien writes from Missoula, where he’s the rewilding advocate for WildEarth Guardians (wildearthguardians.org).