EUREKA — After more than a million acres of forests and prairies burned this past summer in Montana, state and federal land managers are taking a hurried look at the timber that can be salvaged before it loses its value to the state’s timber industry.
In some places, land managers are hoping that some of that dead timber can be harvested as early as this winter. In others, the process will take longer.
Most of the state-owned West Kootenai Wildlife Management Area was in the crosshairs when the West Kootenai fire made its terrifying run, covering more than 4 miles in two hours on Sept. 2.
By the time it roared past, about 80 percent of the 917-acre wildlife management area had been scorched.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Tim Thier hopes that a salvage operation will help jump-start the healing process in an area that’s been important for wintering elk and deer.
“We’ve been trying to enhance the old growth in there in hopes of getting a better snow intercept,” Thier said. “We lost a lot of that to the fire.”
The trees on some of the wildlife management area were thick and “really stunted,” he said. “Two years ago, we did a thinning operation there on about 250 acres. That's where we’re finding most of the remaining live trees. I’m really glad we did that thinning project.”
FWP recently released a draft environmental analysis for a fire salvage project that includes a quick turnaround for public comment. Thier said the hope is the timber salvage project on 506 acres can be completed this winter.
“We want to get in there in December,” Thier said. “We know that by moving quicker, we can capture more of the value of the wood, which will provide us money we need for future management.”
If the work isn’t completed and the burned stand is left behind, Thier said the trees would eventually fall over and create a “jack-strawed situation” where it would be difficult for deer and elk to move around.
“We are going to try to leave a diversity of habitat,” he said. “We will leave patches of burned areas behind for the species that prefer that habitat.
"We know that it’s going to take awhile for that winter cover to return. Probably somewhere close to 40 or 50 years. That’s just the way it is. There will be some improved forage opportunities for a time.”
Typically, Thier said the department offers a 30-day period to comment, but shortened it to two weeks for this project.
“We want to get in there as soon as we can while the snow is still on the ground,” he said.
Any salvage work on the estimated 710,000 acres of national forest lands that burned in Montana will likely have to wait until next year as the U.S. Forest Service works through its own process.
After initial assessments, said Leona Roderick, Forest Service public information officer for post-fire response, it appears that about 5 percent of the total acreage will be available for salvage harvest.
There will be some additional work completed along roads and trails.
Roderick said the 95 percent of the land excluded from potential salvage sales was located in wilderness or wilderness study areas, had accessibility issues or was located on ground that was too steep.
Once the post-fire analysis is completed, Roderick said the individual forests will begin going through the environmental analysis process.
Roderick said it can take six months to a year before work can actually get started on the ground.
“A lot will depend upon the response we get from the public comment,” she said. “Sometimes it may depend on if we get litigated.”
State School Trust Lands didn't take a direct hit from this year's fires.
DNRC Forest Management Bureau Chief Sonya Germann said only about 2,000 acres of state trust lands with commercially valuable timber burned this summer.
Most of that will be harvested as quickly as possible, she said.
The state has already sold about 200,000 board-feet of timber from one of the early season fires near Plains. It expects to sell about 4 million to 6 million board feet in November and December.
"We want to sell it as quickly as we can, especially the Ponderosa pine," she said.
After that species of tree is killed by fire, its wood turns blue and loses value quickly.
"Purchasers tell us they want to harvest before a year has passed to retain its value," Germann said.
The state also works to get the sales done as quickly as possible to help loggers make the necessary preparations they'll need to either get the work completed over the winter months or right after spring breakup.
Germann said a state forester was already working on a section near the ski hill trails off Lolo Peak while the area was still smoking in September.
"He was assessing what we'll need for roads, access issues and the severity of the burn," she said. "As soon as it was safe, he was doing that field reconnaissance.
"Right now, we don't have access to that section."
Germann said the state will try to harvest whatever it can from the school trust lands that burned this summer.
"We aim at getting it all," she said.