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Wildfire, fire management and air quality news for western Montana and the Northern Rockies.

Land Managers Continue Pushing Forest Maintenance Amid Difficult Wildfire Season

 A man loads logs from the Brooklyn Bridge timber sale south of Helena onto a truck July 22, 2021.
A man loads logs from the Brooklyn Bridge timber sale south of Helena onto a truck July 22, 2021.

Heading into what has turned out to be a severe fire season, the state of Montana set a goal to more than double the amount of forest acres it logs, controlled burns and treats to reduce the risk of wildfire on communities. This year’s target represents a sliver of the acreage managers say is critical to address.

Gary Ellingson points out a dense forest from the driver’s seat of his truck. The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation forester describes the boundaries of a logging project in the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest.

“So here’s the beginning of the Brooklyn Bridge timber sale,” Ellingson says.

The 515-acre sale south of Helena is being completed under the Good Neighbor Authority, a program that aims to speed up forest projects on federal land by letting the state do the work. It also allows the state to use proceeds from the logging sales for such projects to fund further treatment work.

Ellingson says this section of dense forest poses fire risk for nearby communities. The Grizzly Gulch Fire started on nearby Mount Helena this year, while the Lump Gulch Fire sparked part of the planned Brooklyn Bridge timber sale last year.

“And if the fire pushed over this hill it would’ve threatened Unionville and Helena and all that,” Ellingson says.

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In the Brooklyn Bridge project, crews are removing about 70 tons of lodgepole pine and Douglas fir per acre, much of it killed during a pine beetle infestation. Dead wood can serve as animal habitat but also contribute to extreme fire behavior.

Despite the volume of lumber being taken out and area control burned, Ellingson says the acreage makes up a relatively small part of this forest landscape that could use treatment.

“It’s very similar to firefighting. You have limited resources, there’s a huge need. And you almost have to do a triage on the landscape and decide `Where are we going?”

County, state and federal land managers met to discuss that issue during a recent Helena summit intended to encourage interagency collaboration and speed up thinning, logging and prescribed burning across Montana to reduce wildfire impacts.

Kristin Sleeper with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation told summit attendees the state has identified 9 million acres that could benefit from treatment to reduce fire risk or improve forest health.

“I think you all know, but 9 million acres can’t be addressed by one agency alone or one entity,” Sleeper says.

Attendee and former Lincoln County Commissioner Mark Peck says he’s seen forest work stall out in the past because of disagreements about how to move it forward and a lack of people to do the work. He hopes Good Neighbor Authority will help change that.

“Before people would collaborate and then they’d just run into a wall; there was no way to implement. But with Good Neighbor Authority, that opens the door for not only collaboration but integration and actually getting work done,” Peck says.

Montana officials plan to treat more than twice as many acres through Good Neighbor Authority this year compared to 2020.

The department set a goal to use Good Neighbor Authority and other programs to treat 25,000 forest acres this year, compared to 11,000 acres last year.

Sonya Germann with DNRC says most of this year’s projects are intended to reduce fire risk where forests approach the boundaries of towns and cities, an area called the wildland urban interface.

“Wildfire risk is greatest closest to structures or critical infrastructure, so you’re going to see those priority areas in and around communities,” Germann says.

Germann says the department plans to ramp up treatment capacity in coming years, including, in part, with additional revenue from Good Neighbor Authority projects.

Although University of Montana forest ecologist Solomon Dobrowski commended DNRC for planning to treat more land this year, he says it would have to do a lot more if the department wants to make a dent in the 4 million acres the state considers high priority for this kind of work.

Dobrowski says the state’s plans barely scratch the surface of the overall acreage needed to be treated to make a meaningful difference in fire behavior.

“When you look at the area that’s being burned every year, it’s increasing exponentially across the western U.S. It’s not going up linearly. So we need to have a response that is similarly scaled, otherwise we will increasingly fall behind,” Dobrowski says.

Dobrowki says officials need to remove excess forest fuels in the short term, but that can’t solve the problem alone. In the long term, he says they also need to address climate change and let more fires burn that can remove undergrowth naturally.

“And this is another reason why we should be discussing promoting a natural fire regime burning under moderate conditions to allow for that fire to actually burn and do some of this work for us,” Dobrowki says.

Dobrowski says the state doesn’t have the time or resources to cut enough trees down to address the risk wildfires pose to communities. He says that problem extends from the local to the federal level, and that each agency needs to reconsider its approach to living with fire.

Kevin Trevellyan is Yellowstone Public Radio's Report for America statehouse reporter.

Copyright 2021 Yellowstone Public Radio. To see more, visit Yellowstone Public Radio.