The Meyers fire didn’t get a lot of press this summer, but it won’t go unnoticed among fans of the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness.
As it blackened about 62,000 acres of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest near Philipsburg, it made some particularly vigorous runs through the Pintler Ranger District. Even before the flames died, U.S. Forest Service backcountry workers started inventorying the damage to their trails and campsites.
Their to-do list showed 40 miles of trail covered with downfall, burned bridges and erosion trouble. The Wisdom/Wise River Ranger District has another 10 miles that is burn-damaged. And the Bitterroot side has 20 miles of work — all in a wilderness area that has only 250 miles of trail across all three ranger districts west-central Montana.
The Wilderness Act of 1964 prohibits use of mechanized equipment in wilderness areas, so any repair work by law must be done with traditional, hand-powered methods. That meant crosscut saws, axes and mules. Pintler District recreation manager Will Shortis got on the phone.
“I started calling folks I know, many of whom I’ve personally trained over the years,” Shortis said. “There were people from Pinedale, Wyoming, the Bridger-Teton National Forest, Livingston, Bozeman — all trails and wilderness people who were qualified with traditional skills.”
The 20-person crew set out on the last week of September, just when the weather went from fire season to rain and snow.
“We put in a whole summer’s worth of work in four weeks,” Shortis said. “They took out 450 burned snags felled with crosscuts or axes. There were 1,250 downed trees cut out of the trails. That puts us ahead for next year, but we still have at least as many that we didn’t get to.”
The crew also rebuilt four puncheons, or wooden walkways that protect wet areas from becoming mud bogs. Some of those puncheons were 50 feet long.
The Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness Area has several remarkable features that endear it to backcountry explorers. It straddles the Continental Divide, with valley bottoms at 5,000 feet looking up at peaks that pass 10,000 feet.
“Because of the elevation change, there’s a significant number of different plant and animal species living there,” said Natalie Dawson, director of the University of Montana’s Wilderness Institute. “There’s large stands of old-growth whitebark pine, and beautiful places for people to see the alpine larch change colors in the fall. And it’s one of the more accessible yet wild wilderness areas. There are many different roads surrounding it, but it’s halfway between Missoula and Bozeman. You can go look at the larch and have a whole lake basin to yourself.”
The fire burned with particular intensity around Edith Lake, in a basin where many visitors mount ascents of Warren Peak. Two-thirds of the route up the mountain got scorched. The fire also blocked much of the Falls Fork and Middle Fork trails along Rock Creek, the Copper Creek Trail and the Carpp Lake Trail.
“We had one spot on the Middle Fork of Rock Creek where it looks like a tornado came out of the fire when it was making a big run,” Shortis said. “The fire whirl laid down thousands of trees in one spot. There’s not a stitch standing.”
Doing trail work the old-fashioned way has advantages and disadvantages from modern chainsaw practice. On the downside, it requires much better physical conditioning, and workers have to watch for shoulder, arm and back strains. On the positive, two-person cross-cut crews tend to be more careful.
“Things with a chainsaw happen real fast,” Shortis said. “You don’t see newer people having problems with the crosscut. If things start to stray, you have another person to confer with and time to change.”
Pintler Ranger District staff considered seeking an exemption to allow chainsaw work in the wilderness. That might have doubled the speed of work, but the time needed to win approval could have used up all the remaining fall days.
As it is, hikers and campers better check in at the area ranger station before making plans next spring. Many popular areas, like the Upper Carpp Lake Loop, have been severely burned and blocked by downed trees. Several lakes have burned forest right to their shores, cluttering campsites with fire debris. And pack stock may not be able to travel most of the affected trails for another year or more.
On the other hand, the number of people now certified to handle hand tools in the wilderness has taken a significant jump.
“It’s not that common to have four weeks where you pack in, build structures with traditional tools and fell trees with traditional tools,” Shortis said. “Some folks were new to it, and some learned a whole summer’s worth of trail skills on this one project.”