Scary prognosis

Forest managers face unprecedented challenges returning public lands to their natural state



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"That's a tree species that has absolutely no defenses, so they're just sitting ducks," Six says.

Grizzly bears rely on whitebark pine seeds as a primary food source before entering hibernation. Earlier this year, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service considered removing grizzly bears from the Endangered Species List, Six testified in Washington, D.C., that the bear's major food source is disappearing.

"It's a very disturbing time to me," Six says. "Just a few years ago we thought the beetles wouldn't move into whitebark pine for 20 years, but it's already happened. That tree is now being recommended for listing as an endangered species."

Foresters say there isn't anything they can do to protect whitebark pines or stave off the beetles. The only thing that can reverse the trend is colder winters, and climate models predict hotter temperatures in the years to come.

Waverek sees the problem playing out in Crazy Canyon with the ponderosa pines. Many trees are already dead from beetles, but he says there's another factor.

Diana Six uses a hatchet to look for mountain pine beetles in a dying ponderosa pine. - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Diana Six uses a hatchet to look for mountain pine beetles in a dying ponderosa pine.

Ponderosas evolved to grow places many other pines can't. They thrive in hot and dry climates and, because they live where water is scarce, they survive in thin forests. The problem up Crazy Canyon is that the ponderosa stands are at a density way beyond natural levels.

"We've got accounts of people driving wagons through here in the mid-1800s," Waverek says. "Unless they took the road, there's no way that'd happen now."

Ponderosa pines around Missoula once grew in stands of only 12–15 trees per acre; today there can be up to 500. Density was low, Waverek argues, because fires came through the area once every five to 25 years and burnt away most of the shade-tolerant undergrowth and saplings too young to take the heat. But more than a century of fire suppression has disrupted that natural cycle, and now the forest is so thick that everything would go if the fires returned.

Out by 10:00 am

Waverek talks about using fire the same way your neighbor uses a Weed Eater. In a perfect world, flames clear out dead or weak trees and help promote healthy new growth. But many areas of the Lolo National Forest, including the grove he's standing in, are too overgrown for a prescribed burn.

Around the turn of the 20th century, some of the largest fires in American history burned through the national forests. The Great Burn in 1910 destroyed over 3 million acres of forest in Montana, Idaho and Washington and killed 86 people. As a result, the federal government perceived wildfires as a threat to valuable resources and lives and adopted a policy of complete fire suppression.

By 1934, federal policy called for all fires extinguished "by 10:00 a.m. the next morning." For better or worse, the policy was successful. In the 1930s, wildfires burned roughly 30 million acres; by the late 1960s that number decreased to less than 5 million.

Around that same, researchers began to figure out that fire played a crucial role in the life cycles of several tree species. The flames burn away undergrowth, returning nutrients to the soil and allowing tree seeds an opportunity to sprout.

The Forest Service has gotten more comfortable with fires in recent years and readily acknowledges that tree mortality is just as critical as tree viability to forest health. Wildfires in high elevations and far from human development are allowed to burn but monitored for potential threats. In low elevations, fire has been successfully reintroduced to a few ponderosa stands around Missoula to promote a more natural fire schedule.

Waverek drives farther down the Forest Service road, closer to the Crazy Canyon trailhead. The trees are broadly spaced and stand like Corinthian columns. The undergrowth is low to the ground. Waverek approaches a particularly large tree and points to a charred triangular scar on the uphill side of the trunk. He's pleased.

John Waverek, a district fire manager officer with the Lolo National Forest, points to a burn scar on a ponderosa pine near the summit of University Mountain. - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • John Waverek, a district fire manager officer with the Lolo National Forest, points to a burn scar on a ponderosa pine near the summit of University Mountain.

"This was a good burn," he says. "You can see how the wood underneath is now exposed."

When the flames penetrate the bark of a mature ponderosa, the tree rushes pitch to the area to seal it off. Repeated over time, this process increases the tree's density, allowing it to remain standing long after it's dead to provide habitat for birds and small mammals.

While fire is a vital part of returning forests to their natural state, the potential consequences make it a less-than-popular tactic.

"In Montana, no one wants to be responsible for the risks," says Carl Seielstad, a University of Montana professor of fire science management. "In the case of the Forest Service or any other agency, if it's perceived that you're responsible for letting it burn then you're on the hook for what happens downstream. That's the fundamental reason why so little fire is allowed to burn outside the wilderness areas."


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