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A tree-fall windfall in Montana's Swan Valley

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The storm that ripped through western Montana on June 26 uprooted trees, snapped power lines and left thousands without power. That morning, Mary Miester was driving near Lake Alva, in the Seeley Valley, and told the Missoulian she saw a tree fall on a camper and fold it like a taco. Folks at the campground there told TV station KPAX that the mass splintering of trees sounded like gunshots.

The 40,000-acre Swan River State Forest suffered a massive blow-down. Staffers there had never seen anything like it. About 6,000 acres were affected. Now state forest officials are hoping to turn some of those fallen trees—about 1.5 million board feet—into cash by proposing a 1,900-acre timber salvage. Such projects generate funds for the state school system.

To conduct the salvage, forest officials have to account for the valley's grizzly bear population. The area is governed by the Swan Valley Grizzly Bear Conservation Agreement, a pact among the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service and timber company Plum Creek. The pact, which dates back to 1996, requires a rotational schedule for management activities. The DNRC asked USFWS for an exception that would allow salvage into October, more than a month longer than the agreement allows. USFWS green-lighted the project on July 27, so long as other nearby areas are left alone this summer and next, to minimize the impact on grizzlies.

But there are also ecological benefits of blow-downs. "We have requirements to keep what we call 'coarse woody debris' out on the forest floor to facilitate nutrient recycling, and we also require that there be some downed material for lynx—denning material," says DNRC Forest Management Bureau Chief Sonya Germann. "In this case, though, we have to interface all of our management goals. So as well as our biodiversity or ecological objectives, we have to look at our fiduciary responsibility to these lands, too." And, she says, "When you're looking at such a broad affected area, where these trees are jack-strawed, they're going to inhibit regeneration of the next forest to come."

The DNRC expects to complete an environmental assessment for the proposed timber salvage by Aug. 3.

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