Can beer help Missoula make the connection between healthy forests and clean water?

Logger Jeff Holliday talking about thinning forest land owned by The Nature Conservancy to protect forest health, and one of Missoula’s sources of fresh drinking water, during a recent tour. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

There’s one surefire way to get Missoulians thinking about forests, fire and water: Make it about beer.

That’s what Greg Peters, communications director of the Missoula-based National Forest Foundation, and National Wild Turkey Federation biologist David Nikonow decided to do when they got together a few months ago – probably over a beer – and came up with Project Beer Water.

The idea is to start with popular things – beer and forests – and show how the two are linked so people understand why they should care about what happens to their forests.

“The Forest Service needs help and we can help them. It’s not just ‘Hey, this is fun,’ and we have a cool logo and it’s beer,” Peters said. “We want to have real conversations with people and the Forest Service wants to have those conversations with our community in a way that opens up possibilities.”

For the beer part, Peters recruited all the Missoula breweries to help raise awareness for the next few months by putting out posters and educational flyers and raising donations through Pint Nights.

To help with the learning part, at the Imagine Nation Brewing Company this week, the NFF hosted a panel of Forest Service professionals to talk about how important forests are to the fresh clean water needed to make good beer.

The U.S. Forest Service manages 60 percent of the land in Missoula’s watershed, which extends as far as Butte and up the Blackfoot and Bitterroot drainages. In the Rattlesnake Wilderness, the forest safeguards the lakes that are the backup water supply for Missoula.

So, the federal government manages much of the high-elevation land, and that’s where most of the water comes from. By the time the Bitterroot River joins the Clark Fork River, headwaters in the national forests have contributed more than 80 percent of the river water, said FS hydrologist Amy Jensen.

“It shocked me that it was that much,” Jensen said. “I will point out that the vast majority of water that goes into our beer comes from groundwater sources. But the water in the Missoula aquifer is coming from Forest Service land.”

TJ Flanagan works to ignite slash piles at a recent burn in the Rattlesnake Mountains. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

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Stream water can be polluted if wildfires burn at high intensity. If the plant roots are burned off, the soil and ash washes into streams more easily during storms.

That’s not the case with lower-intensity fire, and not all wildfires severely burn all parts of the forest. So wildfire is not necessarily a problem for water or the landscape.

In fact, Fire Sciences Laboratory researcher Mark Finney pointed out that wildfires used to burn regularly – at least once a decade – before people started suppressing fires in the 20th century.

Because wildfires were common, they regularly cleaned out the woody fuel, litter and grasses, so the fires were mostly lower intensity.

“It’s kind of an irony. If you don’t want bad fire, then you need a lot more fire in a fire-dependent ecosystem. It’s kind of hard to believe that it’s not highly recognized by the general public and by our elected officials and even our own agency in a lot of areas,” Finney said. “We’re not getting rid of it – we’d better learn to live with it.”

If we were to continue historical levels of burning, we would burn about 36,000 acres a year in the Missoula area – about 26,000 acres at the elevation where people live, Finney said.

Obviously, burning some of that is not possible due to the risk to homes. But the Forest Service and state and local agencies have been trying to reduce some of the fuels through various projects, including the Marshall Woods and Upper Ninemile Creek projects.

Recently, the Forest Service has managed to burn some of the slash piles created from a few hundred acres of hand-thinning in Rattlesnake Canyon. But little underburning of forest areas has taken place.

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That’s becausewhat is  good for Missoula’s water might not be so good for Missoula’s air.

Local and regional limits on smoke production, as mandated partly by the Clean Air Act, curtail some of the burning the Forest Service would like to do, although the county also weighs inbecause the Missoula Valley is highly vulnerable to smoke when conditions are right for inversions.

Sosome are looking to amend the Clean Air Act to allow more smoke from controlled burns.

During this week’s panel, Robyn Whitney, D.C. policy director for the National Association of State Foresters, asked if the Forest Service would like to change the Clean Air Act to allow more smoke. Forest Service speakers said the limits made things difficult but they didn’t necessarily want to return Missoula’s air to the 1970s and the days of the teepee burners.

Whitney said congressional committees were considering making such changes.

“There seems to be bipartisan support for tolerating more smoke,” Whitney said. “That’s one of the fixes I’m pursuing.”