The poster forest for timber greed

Rick Bass on a proposed timber sale in Montana's Grizzly Country

Editor’s note: This is our first ever guest post and we are thrilled that the guest is Rick Bass, a writer I’ve admired since I first read his collection of short stories, The Watch, 30 years ago. I’ve read it many times since. Besides being a fine writer, Bass is also a passionate defender of wild-lands, particularly the Yaak Valley in northern Montana.

By Rick Bass

The first stages of climate grief, denial, then bargaining, are passing. We’ll pile sandbags, buying time before the world’s billion coastal residents surge inland and, where possible, to cooler climes. Montana certainly saw this latter phenomenon last summer—over 3.5 million tourists entered the state, fleeing COVID-19 or wildfire smoke, despite lockdowns. What will it be this year—7 million? Will news of Gov. Greg Gianforte illegally trapping and killing a Yellowstone wolf spur a tourist boycott? Or will the fires that drove last summer’s flight return, prompting sojourners to once again seek salvation northward, even in a wolf-killer’s state? I suspect that the urge to flee climate catastrophe will outweigh the disgust at the governor’s ways.

But when they arrive, the climate refugees could find one of the state’s most valuable forests, and a climate refuge, ruined. The U.S. Forest Service is proposing a 60-million-board-foot timber sale known as “Black Ram” in the  Yaak Valley, on the Kootenai National Forest. At Black Ram, the roots of the ancient spruce, which are thick as a man’s leg, hold 60 percent more carbon than other forests. The forest—centuries old—is now slated for a 950-acre “regeneration harvest.” Environmentalists would like to see this band of sub-boreal forest—a carbon-absorbing curtain of green along the Canadian border—be managed as a climate refuge. Studying how this forest has avoided fire for the better part of a millennium could yield insights into the adaptations that has allowed it to avoid burning while those surrounding it went up in flames. Unfortunately for this ancient forest, it is currently destined to be eradicated with the help of a Trump executive order directing foresters to increase logging volumes by 40 percent and avoid the scientific rigor of Environmental Impact Statements (despite the presence of threatened species, such as the Yaak’s last 20 grizzly bears).

To be certain, clearcutting an ancient forest on the Canadian border is not going to protect homes in California. But preserving it might. 

The fires in California are a meteorological phenomenon, due to arrive soon. “Raking the forest,” as Trump advised, will not prevent the heated breath of global warming from advancing. Fire can no more be kept out of an ecosystem than can rain or wind. California’s fire season—which used to be May through November—is lengthening and will soon have no end or beginning. Thousand-acre clearcuts dozens of miles into the backcountry won’t change that. The best we can do is to try to save homes by removing flammable materials from within 30 feet of the structure. Fire—like rising sea levels—will continue for as long as there is heat and wind. Ironically, the moonscapes of clearcuts, with their desertification, cause surrounding fuels to become more ignitable. 

The ancient forest at Black Ram could help California’s fire season by not being clearcut; by absorbing carbon dioxide and storing it in the ancient spruce, and the swamps and fens that the USFS calls a “wet alpine VRU” (Vegetative Response Unit). 

Doesn’t it make more sense—for California and Montana—to log the small-diameter overstocked trees around structures, if one is to log national forests at all? Public lands generate only 3 percent of the nation’s timber supply and the Forest Service runs a $2 billion loss annually. Wouldn’t the insurance industry support policy that protects those enormous investments? 

There’s so much wrong with Black Ram that it’s being referred to as the poster forest for timber greed. Indigenous communities were not consulted. Forest Service inventories of logging roads closed by gates to protect wildlife have been found to be wildly inaccurate, invalidating what few scientific assessments were made. 

The agency claims the ancient forest needs to be eradicated to make it “resilient,” and to protect communities from wildfire, though the nearest house is fifteen miles to the south, upwind of the gaping clearcuts to come.

Some things never change. Others must. 

What comes after denial and bargaining? Oh yes: the upward turn.

For the ancient forest at Black Ram, time—after so many centuries—is running out.


Rick Bass, a former petroleum geologist, is the author of Fortunate Son (University of New Mexico Press) and a board member of the Yaak Valley Forest Council. 


Give a gift subscription