In a nation that is increasingly divided, it appears there’s still at least one thing that can bring neighbors, nonprofit groups, and state and federal agencies together in Montana: wildfires.
That was evident on Thursday when about 40 interested citizens and employees of the U.S. Forest Service, the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, and a smattering of lumber companies spent the afternoon touring three forest projects intended to reduce the risk of wildfire.
Sponsored by the Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce, the tour is an annual event, but this year’s focus was a little different. In addition to jobs and the local economy, talk often turned to community, collaboration and coming together to reduce the amount of fuel that’s accumulated in forests, especially near residential areas.
Western forests evolved to burn and the drought and higher temperatures brought on by climate change only increase the chance that a fire will start, and people need to accept that fact and be better prepared.
DNRC Director John Tubbs summed it up as he addressed the group at the end of the tour.
“We’ve got too big of a challenge in front of us. There isn’t a one-agency approach to managing Montana’s forestlands, rangelands and its state. It’s an all-hands, all-lands approach – that’s the only way we’re going to get it,” Tubbs said.
Thursday’s three projects highlighted some cooperation that has already developed but also some of the challenges that forest managers face.
On the east side of Mount Jumbo, a section of the Marshall Woods Project shows how the city of Missoula is working with the Forest Service to manage the forest that sprawls across their adjacent lands.
Lower on the mountain, Missoula Conservation Lands Manager Morgan Valliant oversees 200 acres of open space that the city gained as part of the 2008 Montana Legacy Project. The Legacy Project language required that each new landowner log a certain amount of board-feet, but Valliant’s land doesn’t have any good trees because of its recent logging history. However, Valliant does have plenty of younger trees that he can sell to the Willis Enterprises pulp mill in Bonner. So for the past five years, his crews have been thinning the dog-hair in a way that leaves a natural mosaic of trees but reduces the fuel for fire.
Pulp doesn’t pay much, so the city couldn’t harvest those trees without grants from the DNRC Forest Pest Management Program.
“We’re dealing with really young forests and high public use,” Valliant said. “We could do commercial harvest, and that’s not off the table. But our goal is to promote forest growth and move toward old growth. (Fire) is a tool we really need, but it’s been really hard convincing our elected officials and city attorneys that this is something we can actually put back on the landscape.”
Around Missoula, foresters struggle with local limitations on controlled burns, even though burning is a more effective and natural way to clear out forest debris. But burning can be risky around communities, and people don’t like smoke, especially in Missoula, which is highly prone to inversions that amplify air-quality problems.
After the tour moved higher up on Mount Jumbo onto Forest Service land, USFS silviculturist Sheryl Gunn said it’s easier to deal with short bursts of smoke from controlled burns than weeks of wildfire smoke.
Even as the tour participants ogled at the view of the Clark Fork River winding up the valley and the golden larch stands splashed across the old Marshall Mountain ski trails, it wasn’t hard to remember that those sights would have been obscured by smoke from the fires of 2017.
To reduce the severity of a wildfire on Jumbo, the Forest Service has contracted with Tightline Logging to commercially harvest 168 acres above the city land this fall. Like the city, they’re being careful to leave the area as natural as possible since the Sheep Mountain Trail passes nearby.
They’re cutting mostly Douglas fir and favoring ponderosa pine and larch trees, which are more drought tolerant and don’t grow as thick. They’re also protecting certain trees because the Owl Research Institute found flammulated owls nesting in the area.
But once the logging is done, there’s still clearing to do, and the Forest Service needs to deal with overgrown forests and weeds on more than just 168 acres. Crews are doing hand clearing of small trees in sections of the Rattlesnake Creek corridor, but Gunn said that is impractical across a larger landscape.
And as always, funding is scarce.
That’s where controlled burns could come in.
“We’re trying to build some kind of social license here and recognize that people in and around Missoula need to know what’s going on, what the conditions of the forest are,” Gunn said. “We have a lot of tendency to look at fires as good or bad and try to simplify it. But we need to get the message across that these are complex issues, and the only way we can solve these is if we come together collectively.”
The last project on the tour was a prime example of collective problem-solving. The Twin Creek Pine project is a small effort by three landowners, including Dave Atkins and The Nature Conservancy, to reduce the risk of fire in the Gold Creek area of the Blackfoot River corridor. They all agreed to hire logger Jeff Holliday to thin their shared 94 acres along Highway 200.
Like the other projects, the property didn’t have much valuable timber, being former Plum Creek Timber land. But the thick stands of skinny young Douglas fir increased the wildfire risk for the 75 houses in and around the Twin Creek development.
Holliday could earn an average of $777 an acre for saw logs and about $300 an acre for pulp trees but that wouldn’t put him in the black. So he applied for a grant from Gov. Steve Bullock’s 2014 Forests In Focus program, which ended this year.
“You could not pay for this project even if you cut every tree,” Holliday said. “The Nature Conservancy didn’t want any disturbance so we did a winter log. If you do this stuff right at the right times, you don’t make a lot of impact.”
TNC forester Michael Schaedel is proud of the way it looks two years later. He said they could have cut more trees but the goal was forest restoration and building acceptance of treatment.
“There were a lot of folks that were uncomfortable with machines rumbling across Nature Conservancy land. But you can hardly tell we drove a machine over the ground,” Schaedel said. “Now we get a lot of compliments. Having stands like this that still look like a forest and will function like a forest ecosystem, it’s important to show folks that loggers can do this kind of work.”
Atkins said they’d augment Holliday’s work next spring with a controlled burn.
Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier, a former firefighter, said subdivisions in a fire-prone wildland-urban interface – such as Twin Creek – make wildfire mitigation challenging, but Missoula has a lot of people with the right expertise to address the problem.
“There has to be recognition of fire as a piece of the management equation. What are the impediments to reintroducing fire on the landscape? I’m very pleased to say that we’ve engaged in conversations with the U.S. Forest Service, BLM, DNRC, other agency partners here to look at how we make sure that we are able to use fire,” Strohmaier said.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.