Three things will combine to radically transform Montana forests in the next 50 years: bugs, fire and politics.
Mountain pine beetles have killed millions of acres of lodgepole pine trees. Those dead stands, combined with a progressively drier climate, will likely burn in wilder, more intense fashion. The biological aftermath should bring a wider mix of tree species, open areas and wildlife habitat, according to new computer models.
How humans tinker with that progression remains a wildcard. During this month's Society for Conservation Biology research symposium at the University of Montana, several scientists demonstrated a technique called landscape simulation modeling. They've built software that juggles invasive weeds, weather patterns, logging plans, road removal and a lot of other factors to see how a forest will change over time.
"We see more of a natural sequence of events that could result in a more normal habitat distribution," Michael Hillis of Missoula's Ecosystem Research Group said of his model for the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. "But the forest will look much different."
The "B-bar-D" forest covers 3.4 million acres of southwest Montana, bigger than Glacier and Yellowstone national parks combined. Hillis said most of its spruce and Douglas fir stands were logged a century ago for the state's mining industry. The resulting lodgepole stands grew up and matured at the same time, producing what Hillis called the "forest demographics of a rest home" at the perfect age for a beetle epidemic.
Many of those dead trees will then fuel forest fires. While the research is mixed whether a beetle-killed stand burns more dangerously than a green canopy, Hillis said the certain result is more fire scars on the landscape. Those scars in turn will eventually hobble later fires with a matrix of burned and unburned patches. Burned areas may return as new lodgepole stands, which regenerate best after a fire. But the unburned zones could see a return of fir, spruce and other tree species that get a chance to grow without the lodgepoles' choking shade.
Assuming that model is correct, what do humans do with the information? Hillis, a Forest Service researcher before he moved to private practice, said his analysis helped inspire the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership, a coalition of conservationists and loggers who proposed a new way of managing the national forest. Their plan eventually became a cornerstone of Sen. Jon Tester's Forest Jobs and Recreation Act.
That legislation has also drawn critics who warn that tinkering with the forest's natural process could produce bad results.
"I've read a lot of the stories and research on climate change coming out, and one constant is we're constantly being surprised by the results," said George Nikas, director of Wilderness Watch and an opponent of Tester's bill. "Changes are occurring more rapidly than expected, and how they're expressing themselves on the landscape is different than we expect. If you think you've struck on a model or scenario that looks likely today and start acting on it, I'm almost certain in a couple years it will look very different."
Tester's bill would designate about 1 million acres of new wilderness and recreation areas in Montana. It would also require the Forest Service to open at least 100,000 acres of timber over 15 years to logging, thinning or other mechanical treatment in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge, Lolo and Kootenai national forests. Last month, the senator successfully got it inserted in the Interior Department's spending bill, which is awaiting congressional action.
Nikas and other opponents have objected to the bill's mixing of land protections and land management orders. The forest treatment requirements "devolve public lands into local fiefdoms, allowing individual senators to write management plans into law for national forests," he said.
But Nikas further argued actions like thinning hazardous fuels around the edges of communities is a waste of taxpayer dollars at the forest's expense.
"If the problem is a risk of fire on the wildland-urban interface, then we need to put zoning restrictions on building, or adopt policies that say if you want to do it, good luck," Nikas said. "You can't manipulate forests because of decisions people are making to build in the forest. It's just like not encouraging people to build in the floodplain."
John Gatchell of the Montana Wilderness Association is one of Nikas' regular debating partners. His organization was one of the founding members of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership. He said the Forest Service's inability to get either logging or habitat work done helped form the compromise.
"There were 106 watershed projects backlogged on the B-D that were not happening," Gatchell said. "When you look at the landscapes and the condition they should be in, you start seeing all the work that needs to be done."
Hillis' research looked into some of the treatments, such as fuels thinning and prescribed burns. His conclusion was that where work took place, the result was better habitat connectivity, a more varied mix of trees and a 50 percent reduction in fire incidence and severity.
"Opponents who don't like selling trees say this is wrong," Hillis said. "But the objective research shows thinning provides long-term benefits for forest health."
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at email@example.com.