MARSHALL CANYON – A team of University of Montana forestry students set down the trail in the low light of this canyon on Monday to showcase their work restoring a stand of outlying forest to an earlier time.

While the saws lay quiet, their vision ran long, recounting a time before fire suppression became the Western way, and when this plot on Mount Jumbo appeared as a patchwork blend of meadows and forests peppered with trees of varying age.

Over time, the stand has become homogenous, leaving the forest crowded with ladder fuels – trees susceptible to insect attacks, disease and stand-replacing fires.

The time – and the opportunity – has now come to address it, and student foresters are eager to continue the work.

“What we have here is an extremely dense growth of Douglas fir,” said George Gaines, chair of the student chapter of the Society of American Foresters at UM. “We’ve all heard the oft-told story about 100 years of fire suppression, and the subsequent accumulation of ladder fuels building up on the understory of forests.”

That story of suppression was told time and again as forestry students joined Missoula Parks and Recreation, and members of Missoula’s Open Space Advisory Committee, on a tour showcasing the progress made on the Marshall Canyon plot.

In a first-of-its-kind collaboration between the city and the School of Forestry and Conservation, students have spent the past month working in this shaded draw, thinning the forest in an effort to restore its health.

Slash piles linger as evidence of their progress – piles they will burn in the spring. One end of the plot is now open to the struggling light of a fall morning while the other half lies choked with tangled young trees.

“We’d like to have more ponderosa pine in here – there’s an awful lot of Douglas fir,” said UM forestry professor Chris Keyes, who helped the students write their prescription for the work. “Historically, the fir would have been kept out by natural fire. The ponderosa pine at this site is deficient.“

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The 21-acre parcel represents a small piece of the 216 acres Missoula purchased as open space in January 2010. The $400,000 buy provides a contiguous patch of land abutting Mount Jumbo from the east side.

Tim Aldrich, chair of Missoula’s Open Space Advisory Committee, said the land was initially acquired by The Nature Conservancy from Plum Creek Timber as part of the Montana Legacy Project.

It was, Aldrich said, a welcome addition to Missoula’s inventory of open space. He welcomed the university’s will to manage the plot and restore it to a healthier condition.

“This area brings more diversity to our open space program, and it also provides a route all the way around the Mount Jumbo complex of lands,” said Aldrich. “Those in the Bonner, East Missoula and Riverside areas can get onto Mount Jumbo and make the whole circuit. It really was a good project in that respect."

How to maintain the parcel at first seemed challenging, if not daunting. Contracting a project of this size takes money, and city crews are limited by season and staffing.

Morgan Valliant, the conservation lands manager with Missoula Parks and Recreation, said the area has twice been logged. But the regeneration is now thick, creating a young and crowded forest.

“I run a crew of about five people at peak season, and it’s a big effort for us to come in and manage large tracts of some of these units,” Valliant said. “It takes away from some of the other things we do, like trail construction and weed spraying.“

Valliant’s city department receives money from the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to cover contracted thinning of forests on Mount Jumbo. The funding comes as a 50-50 cost-share grant to pay contractors hired for the work.

But several units on this side of the mountain had not gone out to contract, Valliant said. When UM’s forestry program asked to manage the 21-acre plot as an outdoor classroom, the idea appeared as a win-win for all parties involved.

“This agreement we’ve come together on is our first adopt-a-park agreement on city space,” Valliant said. “They came up with a plan on how they wanted to manage these 21 acres. We’re able to use the students’ volunteer time on the project as a cost-share for our grant, so it helps on a number of different layers."

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Valliant said the project’s goal is not to harvest logs. Rather, he’s looking to bring pre-fire suppression conditions to the hillsides of Mount Jumbo.

Doing so may take time and additional work, but along the way, students will learn to work with the landscape, and analyze what nature has presented them.

“This a great site for looking at a prescription as a compromise for what you’d like to have for a city park, and what you’re given to work with,” said Keyes. “It took a while for this site to get to the condition that it’s in, so it makes sense that it will take a series of steps to get it back on its desired trajectory."

It was no mistake that Monday’s tour kicked off Montana Forest Products Week across the state, an event created three years ago to celebrate those in the field and recognize Montana’s forests as vital to the state’s economy.

Out here, on the fringes of urban development, forestry students will spend the next two years providing a community service while receiving hands-on training to bolster their occupational skills.

“They get to learn the real complexities of forest management in a project that benefits the community,” said James Burchfield, dean of the School of Forestry and Conservation, who joined the tour. “We want to continue to do this, so it’s a good start for us.“

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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