Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) The City of Missoula hopes to apply a forestry grant from the state to clean up what one official described as “messy” forest conditions atop Mount Dean Stone – a condition that wasn't known to the city when it acquired the property.

The city purchased roughly 600 acres of new open space property to expand its conservation holdings in the South Hills around Mount Dean Stone in 2020. But at the time, the condition of the forest atop the property wasn't fully known, according to Jeff Gicklhorn, the city's conservation lands program manager.

Now, the city is hoping to address the fire risk through a treatment project that could include commercial timber, wood pulp and burning.

“What we didn't quite realize at that time was the level of need around forest management and maintenance across much of this property,” said Gicklhorn. “The forest condition on the top of Mount Dean Stone is pretty poor at this point.”

Members of the City Council on Wednesday approved a contract with Montana Forest Consultants to conduct forest management services on Dean Stone. The contract calls for the treatment of 42 acres of “high priority forest.”

But the cost of treating the property is surprisingly high, Gicklhorn said. Past treatment projects on forests owned by the city came in at around $1,500 per acre as recently as 2021. But bids for the Dean Stone project range from $4,000 an acre to $7,800 an acre.

“After bidding this project, the per-acre cost of treating lands on the top of Mount Dean Stone far exceeded any budgeted number that we had seen on any city forestry project,” said Gicklhorn. “And we still have 120 additional acres on the top of the property that will need treatment at some point in the future. We've informed DNRC forestry staff that we plan to come back and request additional funds to do so.”

The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) is tasked with responding to fire incidents on forested land surrounding Mount Dean Stone. Because of that, Gicklhorn said the agency is supportive of the city's efforts to treat its the property, regardless of the cost.

Property held by the city atop Dean Stone surrounds critical communication infrastructure, including a dozen radio and comm towers. It also abuts a number of residential areas up Pattee Canyon. Getting to the site is also a challenge, Gicklhorn said.

“The travel time is much longer – it's a challenging road, so the mobilization costs increased,” he said. “It's an extremely messy forest and is heavily infested with mistletoe. This project would bring it into a much better ecological condition.”

Gicklhorn attributed the forest's poor condition to a number of factors. Combined with prior commercial logging projects, a fire tore through portions of Pattee Canyon in 1977. The entire area hasn't seen much maintenance since then, he said.

Gicklhorn wasn't a city employee when the City Council voted to purchase the property. In the future, he suggested the city vet its acquisitions more closely.

“When we consider future acquisitions, we (should) assess the level of deferred maintenance and estimate the approximate cost to take those forests into a healthy ecological condition,” he said. “We're estimating that to treat all the areas on Mount Dean Stone is close to $600,000. That's five years of our contracted services budget.”

Mount Dean Stone. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)
Mount Dean Stone. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)

The property could hold viable timber and commercial logging as part of the treatment hasn't been ruled out. If permitted in conjunction with wood pulp, it could reduce the city's cost of the project.

“Timber production isn't a critical mission for city conservation plans. But in this case, and due to the funding source from the state, they'd actually like to see wood products utilized rather than just consumed or disposed of through pile burning,” Gicklhorn said. “The contractor is proposing to use wood pulp and commercial timber if available.”

Members of the City Council supported the treatment project. The total cost of treating the 42 acres is around $112,200. Of that, around $100,000 will be reimbursed through the state's Forest Action Plan.

“This is a great opportunity to use the Montana Forest Action Plan,” said council member Sierra Farmer. “It's exactly what that grant was intended for.”