LINCOLN — For Gary Burnett, the need for landscape restoration for the Blackfoot, Clearwater and Swan watersheds is particularly visual from the air.
He understands that wildfire management, water quality and road removal can be murky concepts when being discussed in meeting rooms. But as Ecoflight pilot Bruce Gordon soars above Lincoln toward Seeley Lake, the concepts take shape across the mountainous terrain.
Burnett points out the window of the six-seat Cessna Centurion as the landscape passes underneath him. Some of the mountainsides are stripped of their trees, and logging roads wind around the slopes. Closer to the valley floor, homes are tucked among the pines, many of them shining bright red, dead from the mountain pine beetle epidemic. Those remaining stands are homogenous, most of a single age, single size and single species due to previous clearcuts.
“We want to improve the wildlife habitat, fisheries and water quality,” Burnett says, his voice rising above the hum of the plane’s motor. “And while it’s nice to live in the woods, you need to have defensible space for when the landscape catches fire.”
It’s on this landscape that Burnett’s group, the Blackfoot Challenge — along with about 20 other partners ranging from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to Pyramid Mountain Lumber to the U.S. Forest Service — are implementing what they expect to be a 10-year project known as the Southwestern Crown Collaborative.
They started last year, with a $1 million federal grant through the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program. Three weeks ago, the group announced they were given another $3.5 million for this year, which will be used to log trees, fight noxious weed infestations, restore degraded water channels, and repair or remove roads, all while creating jobs and improving the economy across three forests.
“It’s a competitive program, and $10 million was distributed last year to 10 different proposals,” said Megan Birzell, a Northern Rockies forest program associate with The Wilderness Society. “We’re trying to aid landscapes and bolster the economy across 1.5 million acres that covers most of the Swan, Blackfoot and Clearwater watersheds.
“We’re doing everything from thinning and addressing pine beetle infestations to decommissioning and improving roads and removing noxious weeds.”
Funding for the program is allocated on a year-by-year basis by Congress as part of the federal budget process, and it is supported by all three members of Montana’s congressional delegation.
Amber Kamps, the Lincoln District ranger, notes that the work is being done across three national forests — the Helena, Lolo and Flathead — and the money must be matched with either funds or in-kind work.
“It’s a pretty substantial program,” Kamps said. “It requires a 50 percent match, which can be with other federal funding, or it can come from partnerships and in-kind funding. That’s where we strengthen relationships; with weed-spraying in particular.
“For example, the Ponderosa Snow Warriors are really active with weed spraying and they’re using the money to help spray more … and it’s doubled the amount of acres we can treat on the ground.”
The ultimate 10-year plan calls for reducing fire risk on 27,000 acres of forest lands adjacent to homes; restoring 937 miles of streams; mitigating noxious weeds on 81,000 acres, improving 280 miles of trails; decommissioning 400 miles of roads; producing up to 160 million board feet of saw logs and biomass; and creating 170 full- and part-time jobs.
Last year, the collaboration tried to improve 138 miles of roads and trails, fight noxious weeds on 15,000 acres and reduce hazardous fuels on 1,630 acres where the national forests abut private property, known as the urban wildland interface and restore an additional 3,150 acres of forests elsewhere.
Additional work this year calls for treating about 10,000 acres of weeds, improving 7,000 acres of wildlife habitat, restoring 30 miles of streams, upgrading 15 bridges across streams, improving 350 miles of roads and trails, and logging about 4,500 acres on forests near homes.
In the Cessna, Gordon dips his left wing as Barnett points to Dalton Mountain, where extensive logging has taken place.
“They’re looking at doing prescribed fires for management and restoration, and put the ecosystem function back in the landscape for mixed conifer stands,” Barnett said.
Gordon then heads north of Lincoln over the Stonewall subdivision, which is close to where Kamps is considering a vegetation management plan that will include using both commercial and noncommercial logging, along with prescribed burns to try to create a less uniform landscape in the area, making it less susceptible to wildfires and insects. The Stonewall Vegetation Project is currently in the scoping mode, where the public is asked to comment on the proposal.
“These aren’t Forest Service projects, but collaborative projects,” Kamps adds.
Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or email@example.com