Fire mitigation: Saving Montana’s trees, one ranch at a time

Posted: Dec 9, 2019

When forestry experts in Montana concluded last week that December’s cold snap did little to kill beetle larvae nestled under lodgepole and ponderosa pine bark, it was harsh new for those watching the ever-growing bands of reddish-brown beetle-killed forests across the West. It would take at least a week of minus-30-degree temperatures to freeze the beetles in their tracks, and seasonal weather projections make that highly unlikely.

But the grim news was no surprise to some private land owners who have already taken the survival of Montana’s trees into their own hands.

Along a small dirt road on a ridge above the main thoroughfare into the Triple Eight Ranch, a lumber company has staged its logging operations. A line machine, which resembles a small crane, is being used to haul felled trees up a steep slope. Three trees at a time, partially lifted off the ground by taut cables, appear to float up the hillside. Buzzing nearby is another device that de-limbs and cuts the logs so they can be hauled away by truck and reused.

This careful logging operation is key to fire mitigation and ecosystem restoration on a portion of the 3,600-acre ranch, which lies just northwest of Helena, Montana. Triple Eight was a favorite place of the renowned fashion designer, the late Liz Claiborne, and it remains a treasured spot for her husband, Art Ortenberg, a prominent philanthropist. Its savanna and forests are a haven for elk, wolves, grizzlies, mountain lions and snakes, as well as any number of nesting birds.

Ortenberg brought Gordy Sanders of Pyramid Mountain Lumber to the ranch first in 2005 to talk fuel reduction. As in many forested areas in the West, years of selective logging and fire suppression had allowed the tracts of Ponderosa pine, Engelmann spruce and Douglas fir to grow unnaturally dense. They had become fuel ladders that courted a huge fire.

Even after significant thinning, there was more restoration to be done. When John Ottman, a long-time forestry consultant, first walked the ranch in 2009, he could tell right away the trees were in trouble; the mountain pine beetle had infested them.

“We could see the sap coming out of the trees and you know that’s where the beetle is,” says Ottman. In order to save the unaffected Ponderosa pines, Ottman knew many of the surrounding trees would have to go. If the thinning had been done with a prescribed burn, the ranch would have lost many innocent trees. “The beetles force you to go in and mechanically remove the trees,” says Ottman.

“It’s truly criminal to lose trees that are 200 and 300 years old to something that is no bigger than a grain of rice, but we had no choice,” says Ottman. Instead, they saw the thinning as an opportunity to improve the health of the forest. “It became a chance to restore this back to a true Ponderosa pine site,” says Ottman.

In all, the team treated roughly 500 acres in a mosaic pattern. Ottman walked the grounds, individual marking infected trees, and noting nests and other wildlife habitat to avoid.
Opening up the landscape by preserving roughly eight to 15 healthy pines per acre, ranging from 12 to 30 inches in diameter, will make it harder for the beetles to move from one tree to another. Those gaps also allow sunlight to penetrate the canopy making it too warm for the beetle’s liking. “The healthy Ponderosa pine remaining take the forest back to true pre-settlement times, the way it looked when Lewis and Clark came through,” says Ottman.

The mitigation and restoration, which was completed in October 2010, was done in the nick of time, says Ottman. Much longer and the beetles would have finished the job and all the trees would’ve had to go. “If Art had waited one more year, we would not have had that restoration opportunity,” he says.

Ottman, who manages about 175,000 acres of private land in Montana and Idaho, points to a parcel of public land just a half-mile from the Triple Eight where logging was put off until no thriving trees remained. Restoration in that case will mean the costly planting of new trees.

Success at Triple Eight means on-going monitoring of the remaining trees. Ottman plans to revisit, to walk the grounds again, check in on his favorite nesting night hawks and watch for beetles. He believes this forest will thrive thanks to Ortenberg’s foresight and stewardship. “If everybody cared that much, this state would truly be a gem,” says Ottman.

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