Black Ram Vegetation Management-Another Example of Chainsaw Medicine

Clearcuts below Grizzly Creek in the Upper Yaak Drainage. Photo George Wuerthner 

The Kootenai National Forest proposes a massive logging project in Northwest Montana known as the Black Ram “Vegetation” treatment.

The Black Ram project area includes Northwest Yaak from the Canadian border west to the Idaho border, south to the ridge line between Pete Creek, and east to the Yaak River. The Yaak drainage is one of the most remote regions of Montana.


The Yaak drainage is one of the most remote and wild areas of Montana. Photo George Wuerthner 

The 95,000-acre Black Ram Project would commercially log 2,494 acres, including 579 acres of mature-old growth forests.

Note the use of the  euphemism treatment. The agency always sees the forest as sick and needing a healthy dose of chainsaw medicine.

They assert that they want to improve resilience and resistance to insects, disease, and fire. However, notwithstanding insects, disease, and fire maintain healthy forest ecosystems, the Forest Service Industrial Forestry paradigm sees these natural agents as something to eliminate or reduce.

Chainsaw medicine on the Yaak. Thinning opens up the forest to greater heating, drying vegetation and increasing wind penetration–all factors that increase fire spread. Photo George Wuerthner 

Chainsaw medicine is like the magic elixir the old-time snake oil salesman used to promote. Chainsaw medicine cures everything and many things that don’t need fixing.

So let me get this straight. The agency claims if they don’t log the forest, trees “may” die from insects, disease, or fire. So the way to prevent this death is to kill the trees with chainsaws. Does anyone other than me see some disconnect in logic here?

The grizzly bear population of the Yaak is one of the most endangered in the United States with no more than 20-30 bears according to some estimates. Photo George Wuerthner 

Other rationales for Black Ram are just as ludicrous. The FS claims that the Black Ram timber sale will, among other justifications, aid grizzly bear recovery. The Cabinet Yaak grizzly population survival is one of the most tenuous in the country.

So the FS wants to apply chainsaw medicine to the grizzly habitat to increase, it claims, huckleberries.

Logging roads increase access reducing security habitat for grizzly bears. Photo George Wuerthner

No doubt there may be more huckleberries, but huckleberries are not limiting grizzly bear recovery in the area. The main problem for bears is road access and the high human morality associated with them.

The Black Ram project will create nearly a hundred miles of open roads (90 miles of reconstructed roads and 5.5 of new roads). This roading is what will harm grizzlies as well as other wildlife like elk. What they all need more than anything is security cover. Chainsaw medicine provides none.

South Fork of the Yaak from Flatiron Mountain. Photo George Wuerthner 

The Yaak Valley is already fragmented by past logging. Logging of the Black Ram area will further fragment the landscape and destroy the few remaining natural corridors.

The FS asserts that the Black Ram logging project will mitigate climate warming. Yet, logging and wood products production releases a tremendous amount of carbon. In Oregon, for instance, logging is the most significant source of Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the entire state—more than all the car, airplane, and truck emissions.

Cutting any old growth will reduce the carbon storage of the area. Research by Bev Law of Oregon State University has shown that large trees continue to store carbon throughout their lives. So logging the forest doesn’t help climate warming-it worsens it.

Dense forests chaaracterize the Yaak Drainage. Photo George Wuerthner 

The Yaak drainage is an example of Inland Rainforest, characterized by spruce, western red cedar, and western larch. Photo George Wuerthner 

Even if trees die from beetles or fire, they remain on-site, storing carbon. Carbon is stored in the soil, snags, and wood.

The idea that logging the forest will somehow protect homes from wildfire is yet another myth perpetuated by the Forest Service and timber companies. What drives all large wildfires is climate and weather, not fuels. There is no need to remove fuels more than a hundred feet from home. And home hardening is far more effective at protecting homes than logging the forest.

Many researchers, including retired forest service researcher, Jack Cohen, suggest any fuel removal more than 100 feet from a structure provides no extra protection.

The Yaak drainage is an example of Inland Rainforest, characterized by spruce, western red cedar, and western larch. Photo George Wuerthner 

The Yaak Valley forests are a rare inland rainforest that tends to be represented by Pacific Northwest species that burn infrequently. Some of the larger tree species on the site include western red cedar, western hemlock, subalpine fir, Engelmann spruce, and western larch, characterized by long fire rotations between blazes. Some of the larch are estimated to be 600 years old.  The proposed logging will remove older trees resistant to wildfire and replace them with invasive weeds and small trees. It is these fine fuels that cause wildfires to spread rapidly.

They are a patch of classic old-growth forests with large-diameter trees, an abundance of down wood, and decomposing trees.

Dr. Dominick DellaSala, a leading authority on old-growth forests, conducted a field visit to the Black Ram logging project area.  He says, “I can say unequivocally that this site is old growth, is critically important to its surroundings, has key climate and refugia properties, including the potential for large amounts of above and below ground carbon to continue to accumulate over centuries.”  Additionally, the U.S. Forest Service “claims [Black Ram] is for climate resilience, while my observations show it would have the opposite effect.”

If you were to visit a doctor who prescribed the same treatment for everything from a broken leg to a heart attack, and nothing worked, would you trust them to treat you again and again? Yet this is precisely what the Forest Service is asking the public to accept.

The Yaak River drainage is characterized by heavily forested rolling mountains. Photo George Wuerthner 

To add insult to injury, The Forest Service estimates taxpayers will lose $3.2 million subsidizing this deforestation.

A lawsuit brought on by the Alliance for the Wild Rockies put the project on hold in February 2020. After receiving a biological opinion from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that deemed the Forest Service’s plan “was not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the grizzly bear,” officials reopened the project for comment in September 2020.

The Kootenai Tribe , Yellowstone to Yukon, Wild Montana, Montana Wildlife Federation, and The Wilderness Society support the Black Ram logging project.

The Black Ram project exemplifies the agency’s commitment to deforestation and ecosystem degradation. We should expect and need better policies from the agency.


  1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
    Maggie Frazier

    I have no doubt that some of the supporters of this “project” will benefit financially. The Wilderness Society, Montana Wildlife Federation etc? Arent these supposed to be conservation organizations? As in conserving nature & wildlife habitat? Obviously not!

  2. Mike Higgins, Halfway, OR Avatar
    Mike Higgins, Halfway, OR

    You’re NOT alone in your exasperated, disgusted, etc. opinions of the “treatment” of the Yaak vegetation management plan, George. We’ve been fighting the same battles as you have for 40+ years on the Wallowa-Whitman National forests. And I intend to keep fighting for as long as I’m able…I just hope you and your allies make the same commitment.


  3. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
    Jeff Hoffman

    The idea that humans have to manage natural habitats or ecosystems must be strongly opposed. I’m sure there also exist nefarious reasons for this bad proposal, like making money from dead trees. But if the excuse of “needed” management is removed, they at least won’t have that excuse. These ecosystems were around for tens of millions of years before humans got here, and they were doing just fine, thank you. No human “management” needed, move along please!

    1. Ron Kozan Avatar
      Ron Kozan

      These ecosystems were doing just fine before humans???

      5 mass extinctions and 99% of all life going extinct is your defintion of doing just fine?

      1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
        Jeff Hoffman

        I agree, but let’s not lower ourselves to name-calling. This guy is a troll, coming to a radical environmental website and advocating against the environment. I would never have engaged with him if I’d realized that he was a troll from the beginning, and I think that ignoring them is the best response to troll comments like his. I won’t respond to him again.

        BTW, notice that he’s a global warming/climate change denier also. No one like that is worth engaging, because they’re either so deluded that they can’t see reality, or they’re lying.

        1. Hiker Avatar

          I just call it like I see it, but you’re right he’s not worth my time.

  4. Charles Fox Avatar
    Charles Fox

    I have never understood how the “Forest Service” gets away with this business-as-usual industrial destruction, or how they expect Americans to pay for the destruction of their own forests. America fails and fails and never gets better.

    1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
      Jeff Hoffman

      Because this is a country based on making money. and all else is secondary (despite the fact that the people here won’t admit that). The most mentally and spiritually unevolved people in the world.

      1. Charles Fox Avatar
        Charles Fox

        Thanks, Ron. You always provide a valuable contribution to the discussion. Cheers!

      2. Ida Lupine Avatar
        Ida Lupine

        Sometimes, you’ve really got to wonder, I agree. 🙁

        Especially good comments here today.

    2. Ralph Maughan Avatar

      The Forest Service gets away with it because of vast public ignorance.
      I taught political science at Idaho State University for many years — stuff like elections, congress, political parties and interest groups, political socialization. The latter is the study of how and where Americans get their political beliefs, and what their most basic beliefs are.
      When I became a senior professor, I could develop and teach a lot of new classes, ones I thought were really needed. I taught as new classes, politics and the environment, politics of wilderness, public land politics.
      The last class was the one that was needed the most. Citizens in Idaho did not know much that is accurate about the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management especially. National Parks and some public land uses were known a bit better — rules of travel by foot, cycle, horse, ATV, 4 x 4. The history of the public lands was known about as well as the bottom of a black hole!
      Laws and regulations governing recreation, livestock grazing, mining and mineral leasing, oil and gas, timber production, public access, purchase and sale of public lands was unknown except by serious users of these matters. Of particular importance were the “bureaucrats” taking the course. Far from being a bunch of puppet masters mystifying the public, most of them struggled hard to understand the regulations, the laws and their history.

      1. Chris Zinda Avatar
        Chris Zinda

        As you know, Locke and others believed the primary qualification for enfranchisement should be “the age of reason”. IMV, most enfrachised today are unreasonable brutes, ignorant to the core – exactly what Locke and others feared.

        Today, the U.S.and its politic are in exact alignment.

        1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
          Jeff Hoffman

          The U.S. is a country based on making money & materialism, and secondarily on religious fanaticism, and is therefore very right wing compared to the rest of the world. But that said, almost all if not all governments are more right wing and even conservative than their constituents. And by “conservative” I don’t mean conserving nature or being prudent instead of reckless.

      2. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
        Jeff Hoffman

        And also because government agencies, like the government itself, works for the rich & powerful, in this case industries like the logging industry. I was taught this in Political Science 101 50 years ago.

        1. Chris Zinda Avatar
          Chris Zinda

          Yes. It is an axiom regulatory agencies are captured by those they regulate. This happens politically through our Executive and the SES who press policy. It also happens through our Legislative, through agency enabling legislation, other laws, the purse and civil servants.

          Government civil servants incrementally muddle through, as per Lindbloom (and, Ralph, above). While some civil servants are vocational and we expect expertise, most are neither – largely because our civil service does not attract our best and brightest, and those who do give the civil service a shot must adapt, migrate or die according to the organization culture created by the Executive, Legislative & inertia of decades of muddling through.

          As such, all the above are very good at identifying problems, proposing solutions and implementing them for the regulated class. However, none are good at evaluation, especially utilizing science or other data to do so – this veg project just a small example.

          1. Chris Zinda Avatar
            Chris Zinda

            Gonna add here re: civil servants. Few know this, fewer still recognize it as a primary problem.

            The BLM State Office for Oregon/Washington has a dysfunctional HR department. It takes literally over a year to fill positions for the 9 districts they serve.

            3 of the districts currently have 50% vacancy (50% of of their positions are unfilled). All others are above 30%.

            How can you have a functional bureaucracy when half your staff is not even present?

            And, when announcements and applicant lists issued (again, taking a year), the lists are comprised of a handful of insular and nit so qualified people.

            Ex: An archeology position recieved 6 applicants for 6 positions for 6 different districts. 3 withdrew and 3 others were hired, leaving three districts without archeologists now for the third year in a row (Vail one of those).

            In short, the BLM bureaucracy is broken and nobody wants to work for it anyway. As such, is it any wonder about the quality of both the decisions and the lands they administer?

            1. Hiker Avatar

              Chris, what happens to the money budgeted for those positions? I’ve always wondered because this would also take place with the NPS, although not as bad.

              1. Chris Zinda Avatar
                Chris Zinda

                I can’t say, today.

                I used to work in the NPS in Admin.

                In the past, the Park units themselves would reallocate money for vacant positions, usually to pay an acting. More often than not, that money would stay in the Division with the vacancy; however, I’ve lead budget discussions in several parks where that money was given to another Division to address a short term need.

                Regarding the BLM, I can say their budgeting system is quite different than the NPS with Districts less having autonomy over their budgets.

                1. Chris Zinda Avatar
                  Chris Zinda

                  Sorry for adding.

                  The NPS is unique in DOI. Really, among federal agencies. Up until the past decade, it was THE place for professionals as people sought employment in the agency. It also has a relatively defined mission that has been used to develop a strong organization culture. It is well funded and never has a problem recruiting.

                  So, if a BLM District has 50% vacancy and personnel costs are upwards of $100k per employee, I don’t know what discretion the manager has regarding that “savings.” That said, you would never find an NPS unit in a similar situation. Never.

                  For shits, former director Jarvis and his brother Destry want the NPS to be a stand alone agency, removed from DOI. Their proposal is an abuse of organization culture strength (like the “Washington Monument ” budgeting strategy the NPS pioneered). Instead, I believe all land management agencies need to be centralizated to meet policy and financial economies of scale, that there no longer be an NPS, BLM or USFS. Just National Parks, monuments, forest, ACECs, Wilderness, etc.

            2. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
              Jeff Hoffman

              The large majority of what the Bureau of Livestock and Mining does is harmful to the natural environment. Therefore, positions being unfilled is probably best. After all, it’s not like BLM is getting cattle off public lands or preventing mining; it does the exact opposite.

              1. Chris Zinda Avatar
                Chris Zinda

                Jeff, just because positions aren’t filled doesn’t mean they (the BLM) aren’t still doing something.

                If an organization wants to be effective, efficient and responsive (no matter the end), it needs people with an institutional memory (in current Vail/Alvord BLM case, people who actually know and care about the place enough to advocate for it).

                Not only is the vacancy announcement and actual rate problems, but turnover is so high that few making decisions about the land know the land AT ALL. Today, SES ers from DC and Portland using costly contractors from URS and CH2MHill make decisions, not those on the ground.

  5. Martha S. Bibb Avatar
    Martha S. Bibb

    Any research done by the forest service-industrial logging-fire complex anything but biased?
    Build roads, cut the best trees, burn anything left, polite the air…

    1. Ron Kozan Avatar
      Ron Kozan

      Do you really think George can write anything without a bias spin?

      1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
        Jeff Hoffman

        Advocating for the Earth and all the NATIVE life here should not be considered a bias. We should all be doing that. Unfortunately, the majority in modern societies prioritize their harmful unnatural lifestyles, which BTW include grazing non-native animals like cattle and killing trees, over the natural world and the life there, which leads you people to advocate against the Earth and the life here, whether you realize it or not.

        1. Hiker Avatar

          Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

  6. Dennis Stansell Avatar
    Dennis Stansell

    I have committed on USFS timber projects for the past 40 years and nothing seems to have changed. Meanwhile science has advanced considerably and we know the value for ecosystem services that old growth provides. We also know that the most dangerous actions against large mammals are road construction. Please take the no action choice and help wildlife and expense.

  7. Rich Avatar

    Here is a recent study finding that “an increase in upstream vegetation cover will raise rainfall levels, promoting increased water availability.” Yet another reason to protect the Yaak Valley from deforestation.

    Recall John Muir’s observation – “The thirsty mountaineer knows well that in every Sequoia grove he will find running water, but it is a mistake to suppose that the water is the cause of the grove being there; on the contrary, the grove is the cause of the water being there. Drain off the water and the trees will remain, but cut off the trees, and the streams will vanish. Never was cause more completely mistaken for effect than in the case of these related phenomena of Sequoia woods and perennial streams.”

    1. Charles Fox Avatar
      Charles Fox

      Experience shows anonymity increases trolling and abuse. Confirmed.

      1. Hiker Avatar

        Question; why do trolls attack people while pretending to debate.

      2. Ralph Maughan Avatar
        Ralph Maughan

        People posting here are supposed to use their real name and email address. If I find the email is fake, they are deleted. Sometimes the page itself learns of fake names and addresses and deletes people.
        Dr. Ralph Maughan, editor

        1. Hiker Avatar

          Yes, I’ve noticed some posts have recently been deleted.

    1. Ed Loosli Avatar
      Ed Loosli

      To Ron Kozan::: A quote from the usda research article you attached here: “When available, grizzly bears were more likely to select for natural disturbances compared to harvested locations, especially during Hypophagia (spring) and Hyperphagia (fall).”

  8. Hiker Avatar

    Good thing humans call along with their chainsaws. Who knows how long bears might have survived without us?

  9. Ron Kozan Avatar
    Ron Kozan

    What happened to the evidence was overwhelming against mechanical thinning?

  10. Ed Loosli Avatar
    Ed Loosli

    To Ralph Maughan: I have a new email address and when I put it under the comment box, you are not posting my comments, because I guess the system thinks my new email is fake. It is not.
    Thank you, Ed Loosli new email address:


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner