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 always the case. It isn’t in most of the forests that rise from the valleys of Western Montana – forests historically dominated by ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir. These dense forests are largely the result of more than a century of humans trying to extinguish all forest fires. In the last several decades, scientists have found that periodic, low-severity fire is a natural and healthy part of these forest systems. Ironically, these overgrown conditions make the forests more susceptible to bigger, very damaging fires. It can also limit the forest’s ability to absorb and store carbon in long-lived trees, which helps reduce some of the greenhouse gas that causes climate change.
In Western Montana, The Nature Conservancy is working to restore forests to a more natural condition; one that reduces the risk of catastrophic wildfire damage to forests and homes and provides cost-effective natural climate solutions by encouraging the long-term absorption and storage of carbon.
Photos: Left: dense, overgrown forest in Blackfoot Valley Right: Forest that has been thinned to open, park-like stand
Increasing Forest Resiliency
With financial assistance from Montana’s Forests in Focus program we’re thinning dense forests to reduce the fuel available for potential fires. And we’re focusing our work in the areas where homes meet the wildlands. Our efforts are opening the forest, decreasing the chance that a fire could climb into the tree canopies and quickly spread. These more open forests also allow more light and moisture in to nurture the remaining trees, increasing their growth. Larger, healthier trees are more resistant to fire, disease and insects and they can store more carbon. These projects are also putting 17 people to work in the local community.
Thinning work through one Forest in Focus grant in our Clearwater-Blackfoot Project supports 17 jobs and will supply 3,166 tons of materials to local mills by the end of 2017. We’re removing a mix of young and mid-aged trees, always focusing on retaining the largest healthy trees of fire resistant species. The goal is to promote and maintain the historic, uneven-aged structure dominated by ponderosa pine. We’re also leaving dead snags for the benefit of wildlife.
Photos: Left is forest in need of thinning on Clearwater-Blackfoot Project. Right: Nearby forest that has been recently thinned
Jeff Holliday, the owner of Timber Trail and Spur, the company that is performing the thinning, took the initiative to connect the various landowners and develop a successful proposal.
“In the highly contentious world of logging and litigation this is a real gem that should be a model for states around the country,” says Holliday. “In the end, we are utilizing excess wildfire suppression money to improve Montana forests to the benefit of everyone and everything involved.”
Forests in Focus
The Forests in Focus program is an initiative created by Governor Steve Bullock and is aimed at promoting sustainable forest management across the state. The program is paid for by the Department of Natural Resources’ fire suppression fund. In 2013, the Montana legislature passed a bill that allows some of these funds to be spent on fuels reduction and forest restoration. Key strategies of Forests in Focus are targeted at increasing the scale and pace of restoration on Montana forests.
“The state's Forests in Focus Program is a wonderful way to bring together multiple landowners to reduce the fuels that feed wildfires that put homes, lives and habitat at risk,” says landowner Dave Atkins, whose land is part of the thinning operation under the grant. “The governor and legislature are to be commended for working together to make this possible.”
That’s a sentiment echoed by Chris Bryant, Western Montana Land Protection Director for The Nature Conservancy.
“Governor Bullock has continued to demonstrate his commitment to sound forest management and rural economies through the Forest in Focus grant awards. The Conservancy is happy to have partnered with neighboring landowners and a local forester with the initiative to put this project together.”