Chainsaws and brawn: ‘Snake project begins

A crew member with Imperial Forestry Inc. tightens up a slash pile on Monday, July 18, 2016, as part of the Marshall Woods Restoration Project taking place in the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area north of Missoula. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

By Martin Kidston

Efforts to restore a block of the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area north of Missoula gained momentum this week, as crews began clearing dense undergrowth and thinning small-diameter trees.

The task, itself part of the larger Marshall Woods Restoration Project, played out in the afternoon heat on Monday as crews slipped through the forest, using chainsaws and labor to do the work of a wildfire.

Sheryl Gunn, a silviculturist for the east side of the Lolo National Forest, followed the saws while marking the trees to be removed. The goal, she said, was to reduce the likelihood of fire reaching the canopy of the drainage’s larger trees.

“We’ve got one way in and in and one way out, so it’s about ingress and egress for both public and firefighter safety,” said Gunn. “Considering that we’re in the wildland urban interface here, we have a mandated immediate suppression response, so we need to have it safe for people to send engines in, and we want the public to be able to get out in the event of a fire.”

Gunn described the work taking place along the Rattlesnake Trail as “variable density thinning.” The approach favors ponderosa pine larger than eight inches in diameter and strives to replicate a forest cleansed every decade or so by low-intensity fires.

This region last burned in 1919, leaving the forest thick and overgrown. The nearby area has filled with homes and the Rattlesnake watershed has become vital to the city of Missoula. Fires that do start are quickly snuffed, placing the forest’s overall health in jeopardy.

“This would typically burn on the order of every 5 years, 10 years or 25 years, but we’ve missed several fire cycles in here,” said Gunn. “This work allows us to remove the ladder fuels in the understory to reduce the likelihood that a fire will get into the crown of the larger trees.”

By Monday afternoon, contract crews with Imperial Forestry Inc., based in Medford, Oregon, had already cut through several acres along the Rattlesnake Trail. They left the larger ponderosa pines standing – some more than 140 years old – opting instead to take down Douglas fir and smaller-diameter trees.

Moving along the trail, Gunn considered the work’s “structural diversity,” hoping to achieve what she described as both horizontal and vertical aesthetics. Clearing out the understory and smaller trees, she said, will give the larger trees a fighting chance to survive fire or an outbreak of insects.

“We had sprayed a lot of these trees in 2012 and 2014 to allow us to get to this project,” Gunn said. “Now, we’re actually able to free up some growing space and reduce the likelihood of losing this tree in a fire, or giving it a little bit more protection against insects.”

While the Rattlesnake drainage was identified as one of the highest wildfire risks in the Missoula County Wildfire Protection Plan, the area’s heavy use, its proximity to high-end homes and public concern over mechanized treatment limited the project’s scope.

Instead of hauling the biomass to a chip mill or harvesting the project’s saw logs, crews have been forced to stack the debris into slash piles. Technicians will return next fall to burn them when the weather permits it.

Gunn expressed some frustration with the project’s limited scope.

“From a carbon storage perspective, there’s between 30 and 100 years of carbon stored in the bowls of these trees stacked in these piles,” she said. “From an environmental standpoint, it would be better if you actually removed those trees from the site, because the carbon has been fixed and stored. But instead, we’re going to burn those piles, and they’re going to release that carbon into the atmosphere in the name of environmentalism.”

That widow to burn won’t come easily, said Jon Devino, a fuels technician with the Missoula Ranger District. To accomplish a burn, the district must coordinate with both airshed groups in Montana and Idaho.

It must also wait for the perfect weather window; no easy task in a mountain valley accustomed to its share of inversions.

“When we have large acreages to burn close to town, or even a 100-acre unit like this, we may have to chop it in half and do 50 acres one day and 50 acres the next day, because the airshed people are concerned about the volume of smoke we’ll be putting into the air,” Devino said.

Devino said it could take years before the conditions align for burning. At the soonest, he said, crews will shoot for the fall of 2017, weather pending. It will take that long for the slash piles to cure.

“Not only do we have to get permission from the airshed groups, we also need a weather window where we have conducive conditions to burn,” said Devino. “It can take anywhere from 3 to 5 and maybe even 10 years to get all those conditions to fall into place.”

The limitations placed upon the project due to public protest also have other consequences, according to Dave Atkins, a forest ecologist overseeing the project for the Lolo National Forest.

While crews will harvest logs on one section of the project that sits outside the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area, they won’t remove product from the project’s other units, Atkins said.

Flammulated owl. (Photo courtesy of The Audubon Society)

“Some of the folks were concerned about hauling product out of units inside the national recreation area,” said Atkins. “The compromise was, we’d only cut those trees eight inches and smaller. It’s not getting the full restoration from a landscape scale, or from within the stand.”

Atkins named the flammulated owl, a small species that feeds on moths and prefers large trees in relatively open areas. While the restoration work will serve to remove the ladder fuels and dense understory from the Rattlesnake drainage, it won’t open the forest enough to accommodate the owl.

“We aren’t quite achieving that,” said Atkins. “This will definitely improve this area from a safety standpoint, but from a restoration objective, we’re only achieving part of that goal.”

The 3,500 acres being treated in the Marshall Woods Restoration Project marks a drop in the bucket, given how the Rattlesnake watershed spans an estimated 40,000 acres, much of it further north and in higher elevations.

The project may also fall short of its original objectives, though Atkins believes it’s still progress in the right direction.

“We’re at least accomplishing the fire objectives within the main corridor,” Atkins said. “We’ll get this work done, focused down on the wildland urban interface, and hopefully over time build off that.”

Atkins heads back down the trail and makes a short drive to Woods Gulch and the home of Steve Siebert. There, he pulls out a map and notes the project’s continuity throughout the lower Rattlesnake drainage.

A portion of that continuity is owed to private landowners like Siebert, who’s performing vegetation management and restoration work on his Rattlesnake property.

“I’m doing it for four reasons, one was the fire and fuels reduction,” said Siebert. “I wanted to try to get it trending back toward the same condition the Salish managed it for 10,000 years. I wanted to enhance the health and diversity, and the aesthetics.”

When Siebert purchased his home, it had a wooden deck abutting a steep hill and thick forest that ran dark and deep into Woods Gulch. It was also surrounded by junipers and lacked defensible space.

Siebert turned to the Landscape Scale Restoration Grant Program, which aids residents with the cost of performing such restoration work. The program is managed in part by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and aims to reduce fuels and improve forest health in the urban interface.

Angela Mallon, the program’s manager, said DNRC typically passes funding on to local organizations, like Bitterroot Restoration, who in turn work with landowners to complete the work. But when landowners band together to treat a larger area, she said, the program can grant funding directly to them.

“Because the Marshall Woods Restoration Project is just getting going, we are making funds directly available to landowners adjacent to the Marshall Woods project if they can muster a certain amount of continuous properties,” said Mallon. “In order to restore these forests to a somewhat pre-European settlement condition, human intervention is required.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at