Wisherd Ridge, part of the Nature Conservancy’s Great Western Checkerboards project in Montana.
Wisherd Ridge Wisherd Ridge, part of the Nature Conservancy’s Great Western Checkerboards project in Montana. © Steven Gnam

Stories in Montana

Montana Forests

Montana Forests shelter wildlife, clean our air and water, store carbon, moderate Earth’s climate and provide places where we work and play.  But our forests are in trouble. A century of intensive logging and and our misunderstanding of fire’s role in the forests have left them out of balance. Climate change is bringing hotter, drier summers that lengthen and intensify the wildfire season. Growing development threatens to block the movement of wildlife such as Canada lynx, grizzly bears and wolverines. But the forest’s balance can return. The Nature Conservancy is facing these challenges head on. With restoration and collaborative community engagement, we are ensuring our forests thrive even in the face of these threats.

THE ROLE OF FIRE

For thousands of years, fire was the major force shaping Montana Forests. In the dry, low-elevation ponderosa pine forests, frequent, low-intensity fire regularly cleared out smaller, fire-susceptible trees. That reduced the amount of flammable fuel and enabled large, fire-tolerant trees to have the light and moisture they needed to thrive.

In the moist forests dominated by western larch and Douglas-fir, fire occurred as a mosaic of low- and high-severity blazes. This complex burn pattern left a patchy mosaic across the landscape that moderated the behavior of future fires. It also created quality habitat for birds and wildlife, and the magnificent, open groves that inspire our awe.

However, about a century ago, people started to see fire as the enemy. We rushed to fight any and all blazes. Ironically, snuffing out these periodic burns put forests at greater risk for severe, large-scale fires. Today,  many drier, low-elevation forests have become much more crowded than they were historically, making it easier for insects and wildfire to spread from tree to tree. The dense growth can make fires far more severe and more dangerous and costly to fight. Climate change is magnifying the problem. Each year, the cost of firefighting grows, along with the threat to water, lives and property.

CUTTING TREES TO SAVE THE FOREST

While we need to restore fire to its vital role in our forests, right now, some fires will cause extreme damage. Current conditions can fuel unnatural megafires that destroy homes, damage soil and choke our towns with smoke. TNC is dedicated to thinning these dense stands to encourage forests with bigger, more fire-tolerant trees—trees that survive and thrive with periodic fire. Once the forests are thinned, and the conditions are right, we will cautiously introduce prescribed fire to further the restoration process. The resulting open stands of big, healthy trees will also keep more carbon out of the atmosphere so it doesn’t contribute to climate change.

LEADING WITH SCIENCE

Our forest restoration work is on the cutting edge. Questions remain such as “Where and how much do we thin?”and “Can we thin in ways that have long-term benefits to wildlife, such as Canada lynx?” To find answers, our Montana Forests are serving as living laboratories where scientists experiment with different approaches to identify best practices. We are leading by example to show the economic, social and ecological benefits of forest restoration. We can build partnerships and try techniques on our forests that would be difficult to do on public land. As we demonstrate positive results, these practices, guided by science, can be replicated on other private and public land.

How Forest Thinning Changes Fire

The impact and role of fire varies in different types of forests. Typical low-elevation ponderosa pine forests require periodic, low intensity blazes to remain vibrant. The exclusion of fire has left them uncharacteristically dense. These conditions allow fire to quickly spread to the crowns of trees and become unnaturally severe.

Fire in unthinned forest
Figure 1. Fire in unthinned forest. © Erica Simek Sloniker

Thinning these forests restores their more natural, parklike conditions. This allows more light and moisture in to nurture the trees and removes a buildup of flammable fuel. With these conditions, large, fire-tolerant trees can thrive and the risk of fire damage to property, lives and forest health is reduced.

Fire in thinned forest
Figure 2. Fire in forest that has been thinned. © Erica Simek Sloniker

 

COMMUNITY COUNTS

Successful forest restoration requires a new way of thinking about forestry and sufficient funds to execute. This can be especially challenging to implement on our public land. One way TNC is helping advance restoration  is by fostering cooperation between public and private landowners on cross-boundary projects We are exploring ways to make the work pay for itself through productive use of the small trees that are thinned. This might take the form of biomass energy or specialty wood products. We’re bringing together folks who use the forest for recreation, sharing their ideas for the future. We are also working together with state, federal and local crews to build everyone’s capacity to use both thinning and prescribed fire to restore our forests.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

We are excited to be a part of returning Montana Forests to health and productivity, but, public partnership and support and sufficient, and funding, progress will be slow. Please do what you can by supporting public policy that funds restoration and by making a gift to TNC to ensure our work keeps pace with the threats.

More ways to act:

  1.  If you live near a forest, make sure your home is Fire Wise.
  2. Support land protection in forests so they can remain functioning as forests.
MAKING IT WHOLE

Our forest work is focused on the Crown of the Continent—a 10-million acre mosaic of habitat where wildlife such as grizzly bears, lynx and wolverines still roam. During the settlement of the West, key sections of this wild land were carved up into a checkerboard of public and private ownership that threatened to destroy the natural integrity of the Crown. Roads bisected vital migration routes and unsustainable logging and development disturbed important habitat. Since 1997, TNC has purchased more than half a million acres within the Crown—reconnecting the fragmented landscape for the wildlife and people whose lives and livelihoods it enriches. Over the years, we’ve transferred much of that acreage to public ownership, a process that will continue. For now, we are hard at work restoring our remaining forestland so that, when we do pass it on to new owners, it will be in better shape than when we began.