“Born of fire:” Volunteers restore forest health on Dean Stone during National Trails Day

Nikki Stirling saws through a tree during National Trails Day, during which volunteers helped thin the forest on the north face of Mount Dean Stone. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

A chainsaw buzzed in the early morning hours Sunday up Miller Creek, making fast work of low-lying branches and small-diameter trees.

Higher up the slope on Mount Dean Stone, nearly a dozen volunteers tackled a similar task with hand-held saws. As the morning progressed, the overgrown forest gave way to greener meadows, open to the warming sun.

For Mike Schaedel, western Montana forester for The Nature Conservancy, the work marked a significant step in a natural direction, one intended to restore the landscape’s resilience to wildfire.

“These dry ponderosa pine forests were born of fire and created of fire, and fire burned through them every two to 25 years, leaving really open stand conditions for a lot of big ponderosa pine and a couple bigger Douglas fir,” said Schaedel.

“But fire suppression and historic profit-driven logging left seas of small-diameter trees, like the ones we’re thinning, which aren’t resilient to fire at all. All the work these volunteers are doing is helping restore the health of the forest.”

On National Trails Day, a team of open space advocates brought together a crew of Missoula volunteers to restore balance to the landscape. The effort played out nearly three years to the day after The Nature Conservancy acquired the 2,500-acre parcel through the Montana Legacy Project.

After doing so, it gave Five Valleys Land Trust several years to purchase the property for the bargain price of $1 million – an effort that continues to move forward through private fundraising.

The local nonprofit is also working to secure several blocks on Dean Stone’s northern slope, with plans to connect the entire parcel – north to south – through a network of trails and new recreational opportunities.

In coming years, the plot of open space will guard the southeastern rim of the Missoula Valley in perpetuity. But to get there, there’s work to be done, starting with forest thinning.

“These areas are more out of line with their historic conditions and less adapted to future conditions – the drier conditions and climate change,” said Schaedel. “If fire burned through this slope today, it would likely kill a majority of the trees, including the overstory trees, and in drier spots like this, we wouldn’t see forests come back and we’d likely lose that forest cover.”

Member of Run Wild Missoula set off a 1-hour run from Little Park Creek up Mount Dean Stone from the Miller Creek Drainage on National Trails Day. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Up the Miller Creek drainage at Little Park Creek, Run Wild Missoula, REI and Mountain Bike Missoula, among other project partners, spent Sunday morning staging long-distance runs and a mountain bike trek across the landscape.

While National Trails Day marked a good reason to celebrate everything trails, the activities also played a key role in the future of Dean Stone. As crews work to bring balance back to the landscape with saws and slash, runners, bikers and hikers are making observations their own.

“Folks are starting to get out and explore, and the goal is to start exploring back here in Miller Creek and get feedback from folks over the summer,” said Whitney Schwab, the philanthropy director at Five Valleys. “This summer, we want to gather information around usage, and observe the natural resources and wildlife here on the landscape.”

Crews last year put the finishing touches on the Barmeyer Trail on Dean Stone’s northern slope where it ties in with Pattee Creek. That effort included years of work and funding from Missoula’s 2006 Open Space Bond.

At some point in the future, the Barmeyer Trail could find its way toward the summit of Dean Stone before winding back down to Miller Creek on the south side. The observations made this year, especially in the wetter spring months, will help inform that effort.

“There’s some species of concern we want to be sure we’re getting eyes on,” said Schwab. “We do have data on where the seeps and springs are, and we have Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks taking a look at the fishery along Little Park Creek and Miller Creek. All that information is being collated right now. It’s nice to bring awareness to this area, especially as we look at where the trails may go.”

Beau Larkin and his 3-year old daughter, Ursula, help thin the forest during National Trails Day on Mount Dean Stone up the Miller Creek drainage. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

During National Public Lands Day last September, crews began trail work to Legacy Point, a meandering trek that rises from Miller Creek to a viewshed further up the mountain. Many of those same volunteers returned again on Sunday for National Trails Day to thin the forest along the trail they’d built before the snow fell.

They included Ross Carlson, an employee at onXmaps – one of the project’s corporate sponsors.

“The Mount Dean Stone project is very unique and it’s going to link together parts of Missoula that are not linked right now,” said Carlson. “I enjoy these landscapes and I come up here and recreate, so I feel it’s my duty to help improve the landscape.”

While the work drew a number of frequent users, it also beckoned first-time nature lovers, including 3-year-old Ursula Larkin, who took keen interest as her father, Beau, sawed through a three-inch tree and brought the sun to the forest floor for the first time in years.

“I’ve been good friends with the folks at Five Valleys and TNC for a long time, and it seemed like a good way to help with this new open space land everyone is going to have access too,” said Larkin, looking across Miller Creek and the private land beyond.

“That’s private land ownership and this is public now, but as managers we talk a lot between each other on how we want to take care of things for fire and forest health,” he said. “I’ve been involved in some of these committees to decide on this and it’s a good day to come out and get some of that work done.”