Looking through the aspen thicket, it was hard to imagine what the slope looked like three months ago.
Strewn across the ground were small logs, red-needled pine branches and crushed sticks. To an untrained eye, it might seem like the feller bunchers that harvested nearly all the lodgepole pine on this slope had left only devastation in their wake.
But to the foresters and other Bureau of Land Management professionals touring the site last Wednesday, what they saw was the first phase of rejuvenation.
Next year there will be native grasses and forbs. The following year there may be a few saplings. In five years this hillside will be full of three-foot tall lodgepoles.
This slope, which is on the west side of the Madison Valley above the Sun West Ranch subdivision and in the foothills of the Gravelly Mountains, is part of the BLM’s Sun West Stewardship project. Included in the project was 224 acres of commercial logging, aspen stand regeneration and other fuels mitigation work.
The work was all done as a stewardship project, which means the BLM trades the value of the timber for restoration work needed in the project area, said Aly Piwowar, BLM forester who put the project together.
And if this was simply a small BLM project, the story may not go much further. But what makes this project unique is that just down the hill from the BLM ground, the Sun West Ranch property owners have done similar work and coordinated their efforts with the BLM.
The work on Sun West’s side of the fence was funded in part by grants from both the BLM and Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation funneled through Madison County, said Chris Mumme, director of Madison County Emergency Services.
The Sun West area was identified in the 2003 Madison County Community Wildfire Protection Plan as a high priority for fuel treatment.
The concept was thinning out timber stands on the edges of the property would help reduce the chance of a wildfire burning off of the federal land and through Sun West homes.
The Sun West Homeowners Association started doing fuels reduction work as far back as 2009 with the DNRC grant money, Mumme said.
However, when they secured BLM Community Assistance Program money for the work, it became evident that work on both sides of the fence ought to be coordinated.
That’s where Terina Mullen comes in. Mullen is the Fire Mitigation and Education Specialist with the BLM out of Butte.
She had been working with Mumme on securing the BLM funding for the Sun West work and realized there may be an opportunity to make a bigger impact by coordinating efforts with the agency.
So in February, folks from Sun West, Madison County and the BLM office in Dillon met in Butte to see if they could figure out a way to work together.
And in fact, both sides needed each other, Piwowar said. The BLM needed to access their land through the Sun West Ranch, and to adequately secure their property against wildfire danger the homeowners association needed the BLM to do the work on the adjacent land.
The two sides agreed on a contractor to do the work and an access agreement and by June the work was underway. By late August it was largely complete.
While the Madison County Community Wildfire Protection Plan identified the Sun West property as a priority for fuels reduction work, a different document highlighted the need for work on the BLM’s land adjacent to the ranch a priority.
In 2009, the BLM completed a Madison Watershed Assessment. This document is basically an inventory of ecological conditions in the Madison watershed, which included the Tobacco Root Mountains down through the Gravellys, Piwowar said. It also took into consideration existing conditions and recent work done on private lands and ground owned by other agencies.
“It’s really a comprehensive land health assessment,” Piwowar said.
The assessment took into account five aspects: upland health, riparian health, air quality, water quality and providing for biodiversity.
The watershed assessment becomes a tool for identifying projects and, like the community wildfire protection plan, it pointed out the need for work near the Sun West Ranch.
However, the work identified in the watershed assessment process was more than hazardous fuels reduction, she said.
On the benches above the Sun West property are some of the largest aspen stands in the Gravelly Mountains and southwest Montana, Piwowar said. Yet they were getting crowded out by both lodgepole pine and Douglas fir. Additionally, the lodgepole stands in the area were sick from several years of mountain pine beetle infestation – in some cases infestation rates were at 80 percent. The lodgepole was also getting crowded with blow down as dead trees were stacking up on the ground.
In general, it all needed a good cleaning up.
The stewardship project was bid by Osler Logging out of Bozeman, which was also the logging company hired by the Sun West Ranch to do the work on their land.
And rather than going through the 350 acre BLM project area and marking each tree that needed to be cut, Piwowar focused on desirable outcomes like aspen regeneration, reduced fuels and utilizing wood products.
She worked for a few days with the logging crews making sure they were all on the same page and then largely let them do the work, she said.
In the old days, government timber sales were all marked by crews and loggers had to cut only marked trees, but that process is inefficient, Piwowar said.
By focusing on desirable conditions, the agency is able to build more of a trusting relationship with the logging company by not micromanaging their work.
“On private land that’s what they’re doing anyway and they’re more comfortable with it,” Piwowar said.
Dave Krueger, from Sun Mountain Lumber in Deer Lodge, was also on the tour and he agreed.
Sometimes all it takes is just getting the government to sit down with the logging companies and talk about what the desired outcomes are and what are the things needing protection and then let the crews go to work.
“The timber industry isn’t out there to steal timber,” Krueger said. “We’re out there to be a tool for you managers.”
Along with communicating with the logging company doing the work, Piwowar and her co-worker Kipper Blotkamp met with Sun West landowners to talk about the work and how it would change the look of the landscape.
For the past few years Sun West had been doing a little fuels reduction work each year, said landowner Teresa Dockery, who also attended the tour. But this summer’s project was a big step. The communication the landowners got from Piwowar and Blotkamp was helpful.
“It was important to come and talk to property owners, because we didn’t know what to expect,” Dockery said.
And though some of the changes were dramatic, it’s been a great improvement, she said.
“It’s really opened things up,” Dockery said. “We hike here every day and it’s really opened up a lot of trails.”
Piwowar explained to the landowners that in some areas the change was going to be dramatic, especially in the lodgepole pine stands.
Lodgepole pine is unique because stands are typically single aged and so when they age entire stands become susceptible to disease and insects. Additionally, lodgepole is difficult to thin because the root systems are shallow and the space between trees often allows for more wind-felled timber. So the treatment for mature stands is often overstory removal, which is a fancy way of saying clear-cut.
The lodgepole pine treated within the Sun West Stewardship project were mostly overstory removal treatments and though it looks dramatic now, it’s the best thing for creating biodiversity and reducing fuels in the area, Piwowar said.
The other thing the stewardship project did was provide a seamless transition of fuels reduction from the public land to the private land, creating a more safe and defensible environment around the Sun West Ranch, said Terina Mullen.
Ultimately, the success of the collaborative effort is really both social and ecological, she said. The land is certainly healthier and the homes are safer.
“Wildfire doesn’t respect jurisdictional boundaries and nor should we when we do (wildfire) mitigation work,” Mullen said.
The other benefit to the entire Sun West project is it provides a road map for other collaborative efforts between BLM and private landowners, she said.
The community wildfire protection plan has identified other areas in the county that need fuels reduction work and money is available to help homeowners with their portion of the work.
The goal is to help landowners make their properties safer from the threat of wildfire and also make the forest healthier, Mullen said. The Sun West work shows that both can be accomplished in one project.
For more information on fuels reduction work or to get more information about available funding, contact Chris Mumme at 843-4253.