Pyramid Mountain Lumber of Seeley Lake began a winter logging operation Tuesday on the Bitterroot National Forest in the Sapphire Mountain Range.

Perry Backus, Ravalli Republic

Wet, warm conditions are putting many loggers out of the woods as early spring breakup closes roads in western Montana.

The Flathead National Forest imposed road restrictions on the Hungry Horse, Tally Lake and Swan Lake ranger districts Friday, two weeks after Flathead County placed similar limits on most of its rural roads. The rules prevent heavy equipment, such as logging trucks, from churning the dirt surfaces into impassible ruts.

“This is a lot earlier than normal,” Kalispell logging company owner James Stupak said Friday. “Usually, we don’t start seeing this until the middle of March. This week, we were out in the third week of February.”

Stupak said his two crews of 18 workers scrambled to finish logging projects this winter before the breakup got started. But even with the expedited schedule, Mother Nature provided more challenges.

“We had issues with a project in the Swan Valley,” Stupak said. “Last winter, we had 4 feet of snow, but this year we had a foot or 18 inches. When that started to disappear in February, we had to quit.”

Flathead Forest spokeswoman Janette Turk said the 2016 road restrictions were within the typical time frame according to U.S. Forest Service records. Ranger districts have the option of closing roads or placing weight limits on travel, depending on how wet conditions are.

The Lolo National Forest was in similar status, according to forest environmental coordinator Chris Partyka.

“Our trend has been for warmer winters with rain instead of snow and frozen conditions,” Partyka said. “With some of our ongoing sales, they’ve been hauling out at night or very early in the morning when ground conditions are frozen.”

Partyka said about 150 roads in the Lolo Forest are affected by spring breakup, but not all are closed or limited. He recommended checking with local ranger districts for the latest local access information.

Montana Logging Association Director Keith Olson said forest workers across Montana were pulling back.

“Most guys have been shut down for some time in northwest Montana or are certainly moving that way,” Olson said. “It looks like this will be a long one for the guys. Hopefully, by mid-May they’ll all be drifting back to work.”

But getting back in the woods faces other challenges, according to Stupak. Several areas where he has logging sales are closed in late spring to protect elk calving, loon nesting and grizzly bear activity.

“It’s a fight every winter to keep going,” Stupak said. “We’re seeing saturation rains in springtime, and then fire season shuts you down in summer. If I could factor a good nine months a year of work for my people, that would be great. It’s getting harder every year to find that. Winter’s the time when you can really work, but we don’t see winter much anymore.”

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