The world's largest known Western larch tree just outside of The Nature Conservancy's Great Western Checkerboards Project, Montana.
Western Larch Tree The world's largest known Western larch tree just outside of The Nature Conservancy's Great Western Checkerboards Project, Montana. © Steven Gnam

Stories in Montana

Restoring Western Montana Forests

Creating healthier forests for a brighter future.

Travelling through the Western U.S. you could easily get the impression that densely packed forests, the sort you can barely move through without a trail, is a normal condition. But that’s not the case in most of the forests that rise from the valleys of Western Montana. These dense forests are largely the result of more than a century of humans trying to extinguish all forest fires. Ironically, these overgrown conditions make the forests more susceptible to bigger, very damaging fires.

Restoring Montana's Forests For millennia, fire played a vital role in shaping Western forests and keeping them healthy. But for more than a century, fire suppression has left forests vulnerable to more severe, damaging blazes. Learn about our forest restoration work and how we're promoting healthy forests.

In Western Montana, The Nature Conservancy is restoring forests to a more natural condition; one that reduces the risk of catastrophic wildfire damage to forests and homes and helps fight climate change.

The Role of Fire

Many Montana forests evolved with fire. Regular, natural blazes kept forests healthy in various ways. In moister forests of fir and larch, fires were of mixture of high and low severity, creating a patchy forest pattern. That mix of more open and denser forests kept fires from clearing huge swaths of forest in one big blaze.

In drier pine and juniper forests, frequent, low-intensity fire was the norm. Those blazes regularly cleared out smaller, fire-susceptible trees that could fuel a much larger blaze. Fires opened the forest to more moisture and light so that the larger, fire-tolerant trees could thrive and create the magnificent open groves that inspire awe and preserved habitat for a huge diversity of bird and animal life.

Where fires have been suppressed, overcrowding can make the forest less resilient. When the forest burns, the fire can extend into the crowns, killing large swaths of trees.
Unmanaged Pine Forest Where fires have been suppressed, overcrowding can make the forest less resilient. When the forest burns, the fire can extend into the crowns, killing large swaths of trees. © Erica Simek Sloniker/TNC
Controlled burns and thinning keep fire burning low through the understory. Maintaining gaps between some trees helps prevent future large crown fires.
Managed Ponderosa Pine Forest Controlled burns and thinning keep fire burning low through the understory. Maintaining gaps between some trees helps prevent future large crown fires. © Erica Simek Sloniker/TNC

Cutting Trees to Save the Forest

While we need to restore fire to its vital role in our forests, current conditions can fuel unnatural megafires that destroy homes, damage soil, and choke our towns with smoke. TNC is dedicated to restoring the forests by thinning these dense stands to encourage the growth of 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.

Forests and Climate Change

Conventional wisdom might suggest that the more trees, the more carbon the forest will hold. It turns out that, over the long run, a stand of fewer, larger and healthier trees will do the job as well or better than a stand of more but crowded trees. Since carbon is the main component of the greenhouse gases causing climate change, the more we can capture in trees, the better.

A good way to create the best forests for capturing carbon is by thinning the trees when they’re young. That’s the finding of a study on forests and carbon co-authored by TNC’s Western Montana Forester, Mike Schaedel.

By thinning out some trees, we are opening the forest, allowing in the light and moisture that nurture bigger trees. Besides storing more carbon, larger, healthier trees are also more resistant to fire, disease and insects.

Trees are made of roughly 50% carbon and the crown is where the carbon is absorbed. Densely packed trees have smaller crowns than trees grown with more space, so they absorb less carbon than bigger trees with larger crowns.

TNC’s Western Montana Forester
graphic demonstrating that trees capture carbon during photosynthesis and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Capturing Carbon Forests with fewer, large trees store more carbon than more densely packed forests with more smaller trees. © TNC

Leading with Science

Our forest restoration work is on the cutting edge. Questions remain such as, “Where and how much do we thin to best increase the resilience of landscapes with mixed-severity fire regimes?” 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 can use these lands to try techniques and build partnerships that would be difficult on public land. But, if we demonstrate positive results, these proven practices, guided by science, can be replicated on other private and public land. TNC is leading by example to show the economic, social and ecological benefits of forest restoration.