NINEMILE VALLEY – In eastern South Dakota where University of Montana forestry student Shane Kono grew up on a farm, soybeans and corn and wheat cover vast acreages.
Sometimes Kono can’t help but wonder: How would those grasslands look and function without pesticides, irrigation or harvesting?
“Who even knows the possibilities?” wondered the 23-year-old.
That curiosity, in part, developed into Kono’s interest in working toward a degree in wildland restoration, a relatively new program in the UM College of Forestry and Conservation.
The program was approved by the Montana Board of Regents in 2006 and came online a year later in response to shifts in attitude toward land management practices in recent decades. Some people began to rethink damming rivers, building backcountry roads and suppressing wildfires. Efforts shifted toward restoring and revitalizing degraded lands.
In Missoula’s backyard, the Milltown Dam removal and cleanup project, part of the largest Superfund site in the western United States, was under way. Meanwhile, Gov. Brian Schweitzer was touting the state’s burgeoning “restoration economy.”
“It was a combination of the right people, in the right place with the right incentives,” said Jim Burchfield, interim dean of the forestry school.
A survey of 300 colleges and universities in the United States and Canada with research programs in ecology, conservation and natural resource sciences showed that in 2006, only 4 percent offered degree programs in restoration. Three years later, 9 percent of those same schools had developed restoration degrees, said Cara Nelson, director of the UM Wildland Restoration Program.
Two students have graduated from UM’s program in its three years of existence. Twenty-six students are enrolled in the program this year.
For a long time, natural resources professionals learned about restoration on the job, making sure that work didn’t further degrade the land. They also learned how to organize successful volunteer days. There’s a need for a trained work force, Nelson said.
“There’s a lot of interest in getting people up to speed,” she said.
On Little McCormick Creek, a tributary to Ninemile Creek, Kono will spend every weekend along 1,000 feet of reconstructed streambanks until the snow falls, monitoring the vegetation trying to take root in the rocky soil. He will count how many and what species of hand-planted trees have survived to see the one-year anniversary. He will note whether invasive plants thrive better than native ones, and profile a cross-section of the stream to see how it changes.
“I love fishing and I find aquatic ecosystems interesting,” Kono said. “I used to be a landscaper for a couple of years, so I like to get in and fix things and bring the natural process back.”
This is just one section of Little McCormick that Trout Unlimited, in collaboration with the Lolo National Forest, is working to restore. They’ve identified 10 tributaries of Ninemile Creek damaged largely by nontoxic mining waste.
A year ago, this stream – a spawning ground for native cutthroat trout – was full of sediment. Its five-foot banks were eroding, said Rob Roberts, restoration coordinator for Trout Unlimited. Mining had occurred along the stream since the 1930s. There was so much sediment, that the water disappeared entirely downstream.
Next month, TU will begin rehabilitating and restoring the remaining 2,000-foot section of Little McCormick.
Monitoring is one part of restoration projects that can often fall through the cracks, especially if funding is limited, Nelson said. It cost roughly $60,000 to restore the 1,000-foot section of the creek, which doesn’t account for personnel time and volunteer labor.
Essentially, Kono is collecting baseline data because no vegetation grew on the rocky, eroding banks before the rehabilitation work, Roberts said. Without Kono’s help, monitoring would fall on the nonprofit’s shoulders, and because of time constraints, the data may not have been as complete. That’s why having students help on restoration projects – it’s a requirement of the major – not only provides real work experience, but also benefits their sponsors.
A little closer to home, Patricia McIlvenna is working on a much different type of restoration project: a native plant garden on a small weed-filled lot along Campus Drive on the southwest corner of the UM campus. At various times since the 1960s, the lot has been covered by a laboratory to study larch trees, and then a modular building used as office space. The U.S. Forest Service leases the land from UM.
Without McIlvenna’s lead on the project, the lot would likely be planted with grass, which is water-intensive. The native plant garden was designed as an extension of Mount Sentinel, which sits only a few feet away. Native plants will attract native insects and won’t require watering, only some weeding.
McIlvenna intends to install educational kiosks and walkways, which will help educate local residents about native plants, native species and the benefits of native plant gardens.
“It’s an opportunity to show people that there’s another way out there,” said Mike Young, research fisheries biologist at the Rocky Mountain Research Station, and who, along with Nelson, wrote a grant to fund the project.
As someone who was raised in Hawaii, McIlvenna knows all too well about degraded lands. The islands are known as the endangered capital of the world, she said. More than half the species there are non-native.
Restoration allows humans to be a part of the ecological solution, rather than part of the problem, she said – that is, if there’s enough money to fully fund them.
With 16 designated Superfund sites in Montana and thousands of public and private forest land with restoration possibilities, there are plenty of potential jobs for these UM students. In fact, the Montana AFL-CIO sponsored a scholarship for two students in the restoration program because of the apparent need for trained labor in the industry. Both McIlvenna and Kono are recipients of that scholarship, which provided about $5,000 each.
What the Montana AFL-CIO doesn’t know is the quality of jobs these UM students will find. Do restoration projects use union labor and provide employee benefits? Are these jobs sustainable?
“So often we’re training people for work that isn’t there,” said Jim McGarvey, executive secretary of the Montana AFL-CIO. “If we are going to spend all this money, we want to make sure the market is ready to accept them.”
That’s why the AFL-CIO has commissioned a study with UM’s O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West to study the number and type of restoration jobs that will be available in the next 15 years. The study is funded by a grant the AFL-CIO received from the U.S. Department of Labor.
“We’re looking at a whole laundry list of current and past restoration work around the state and looking at how much money was spent and how many people were employed,” said Larry Swanson, associate director of the research institute.
In some cases, he said, especially in places like Montana, those projects are limited in scope by the available money. Not only will the study identify the job potential in restoration, but the training required to meet the demand. It’s part of a larger study on overall job potential for the future.
“The reason why some people are interested in this is because there’s been a lot of attention given to the ‘restoration economy,’ ” Swanson said. “It’s not an economy in and of itself. I think of this as an activity within the economy.”
Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at email@example.com.