HUNGRY HORSE — It takes a different kind of patience when you sign up to study a forest.
A research project started in one lifetime might not bear fruit until the next generation of scientists comes along.
Across the country, forest researchers are setting the stage for projects they hope eventually will offer insights on management techniques that will help forests of all types make the transition that’s coming as the climate continues to warm.
In five different locations — including Flathead National Forest lands adjacent to the Coram Experimental Forest — researchers are preparing to set up new plots that could offer future scientists insights into whether it’s best to stick with what’s already there or help the transition along by introducing species that will be more tolerant to the new normal.
In western Montana, that change will likely mean warmer temperatures that stay above freezing at night, which could lead to an earlier spring runoff. Along with that, the growing season could be longer, with less moisture in the ground during the hot summer months. Predictions call for more wildfire as the forests dry out.
“By the end of the summer, that could mean that trees are more stressed,” said U.S. Forest Service researcher Elaine Kennedy Sutherland of the Forestry Sciences Laboratory in Missoula. She helped design the research project on the Flathead Forest. “Essentially, we’re looking at a longer growing season with potentially less water.
“Some species are going to be more adapted to those kinds of conditions and others won’t,” Sutherland said. “Where we have some species drop out, others will take over. We want to see if we can develop some treatments where western larch can continue to resist those warming conditions.”
There certainly is no better place to do that research than near the Coram Experimental Forest.
Set aside in 1933, the research station has been focused on the species that can live for more than 800 years and reach upward of 180 feet tall. Unlike most cone-bearing trees, larch loose their needles in the fall, but not before lighting up mountainsides with golden-orange bursts of color.
Flathead National Forest siliviculturist Melissa Jenkins said larch has a number of qualities that might help it survive the coming changes to the landscape.
Unlike some species of pine and spruce, it’s not in the crosshairs of many destructive insects and disease. If it can live long enough, larch also develops bark thick enough to resist fire.
“Western larch is probably one of the most resilient trees that we have on our landscape,” Jenkins said. “It’s not as susceptible to fire as other species and resists bugs and insects. When it does die, it creates some of the best snags for wildlife. Pileated woodpeckers love them.”
But what it doesn’t like is shade. And it needs bare mineral soil for its seeds to get a foothold.
The Adaptive Silviculture for Climate Change project will create three different scenarios for future scientists to consider. The scenarios are the same at all the research projects across the country.
They range from thinning trees to see if the lower densities will give those that remain a better chance of making it through the dry spells, to planting drought-resistant Ponderosa pine in other plots to determine if that is what the warmer climates will demand.
Sutherland knows that she and the others making this initial investment on the ground may depend on others to harvest the knowledge this experiment will yield.
“It will probably take at least 10 years to see a growth response,” she said. “Working as a scientist in natural resources is very different than working with bacteria in a laboratory. The time and scope is far different. You have to be focused on a future-based outlook. These projects aren’t so much for yourself, but for future researchers.”
A trail winds through the Coram Experimental Forest where that fruit of earlier researchers is now coming to bear.
Back in the 1950s, a team of scientists proposed a project that created a new western larch forest and tried a variety of different management techniques to see how both the trees and the surrounding habitat would respond.
As luck would have it, not long after they removed most of the overstory, the surrounding larch produced a bountiful crop of seeds that would eventually take root on the acreage east of Hungry Horse.
The focus of the study was to see what impacts thinning would have on the new forest.
Now, close the 60 years later, anyone with an interest in forest management can take the mile-long trail called “Walk with Larch” that winds through the different plots of the research project to see for themselves what different management techniques can do for a forest.
“It’s kind of like Silviculture 101,” Jenkins said.
In the portion that wasn’t thinned, upwards of 10,000 to 20,000 trees grow on an acre. The largest are maybe three inches in diameter. All but the uppermost branches are bare. Larch don’t thrive in shade.
Turn 180 degrees and the larch were thinned to about 20 feet apart. The trees are almost 16 inches in diameter and the branches are spread wide and filled with bright yellow needles. The understory is filled with birch and other varieties of shrubs.
Coram Experimental Forest ecologist manager David Wright said all the trees are the same age.
“Trees need water, sunlight, carbon dioxide and nutrients to thrive,” Wright said. “If you limit one of those factors, they don’t do as well.”
While the stands along the “Walk with Larch” trail weren’t representative of what actually occurs on national forest lands, they do provide a very visual sample of what changes can produce on the landscape.
In the pre-commercial thinning projects that occur on the Flathead Forest, Jenkins said silviculturists like herself manage for a variety of tree species.
“Diversity is like insurance in the forest,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins said people always ask what she thinks should happen on national forest lands. Her answer is always the same.
“It depends on what your objectives are,” she said. “Through management, we can create good thermal cover for wildlife or grow the biggest trees or maximize tree production or create a parking lot. It all depends on what the objectives are.”
Jenkins’ wish is that people would come out and take a stroll along the Walk with Larch trail and see for themselves.
“If they would do that, then we could sit down and talk about our choices and decide what those objectives should be,” Jenkins said.