Think of it as gardening on a mountainous scale.
Missoula's urban forestry crew is at work on Mount Jumbo, pruning, clearing and defending against pests - only with chain saws, drip torches and hardhats.
"We don't always have to pick this stuff up," said logger John Moore as he tossed limbs and skinny trunks of Douglas fir into a pile. "Usually we get paid just to lay them down."
Moore and his colleagues were buzzing away along the Backbone Trail south of the Jumbo saddle on Tuesday, tearing holes in fir thickets so packed only moss could grow by their roots. Every so often, they'd run into a stray pocket of ponderosa pine infected with mountain pine beetles, and they'd lop them down, too.
The work is part of a $125,000 Department of Natural Resources and Conservation grant to improve the health of Missoula's urban forests. In addition to a lot of thinning work carried out during the winter in Greenough Park and the South Hills, city crews will spend much of this spring around the Jumbo saddle trying to strengthen its forest.
"Most of this area used to be grassland," city conservation lands manager Morgan Valliant said as he toured the trees. "It's like the Palouse of eastern Washington or the grasslands of eastern Montana. When Glacial Lake Missoula drained, it left all this open area that was reclaimed by plants."
Before the valley was settled by white pioneers, periodic fires would sweep the hillside of most sapling pines and firs, leaving only a few to grow big. With the imposition of regular firefighting, those grasslands started getting invaded by little conifers. They competed for light and water with the big trees and attracted hungry pests, like the bark beetles.
The grant will fund city work on about 100 acres north of the saddle, 45 acres along the Backbone Trail and another 25 acres around the trailhead parking lot. Most of the work should be done by the end of June, before new crops of pine beetles fly to infest new trees. Some additional slash will be burned in late fall, after the fire season is over.
And $20,000 of the money went to a matching grant with the Missoula Fire Department to buy a wood chipper. Both the urban forestry and fire departments will use it for hazardous fuels reduction efforts around the city's forest fringe.
The city hired loggers from Miller Creek Reforestation to handle the clearing. Moore said the timing was perfect, as most deep forest work is halted now because of spring breakup.
"This keeps me logging another two weeks," he said. "It's just a blessing to have work."
Tuesday offered the typical mix of sunshine, gray clouds and sideways blowing snow on the hillside. Although the grass was still brown, yellowbells, shooting stars and kittentail flowers were already coloring the ground. In the trees, bluebirds and Clark's nutcrackers zipped about.
"This area's important to a lot of sensitive ground-nesting birds," Valliant said. "The grasshopper sparrow nests here, and the lazuli bunting nests in woody draws but forages in the grasslands. We'll leave some of the bigger beetle-kill trees standing for cavity-nesting birds, like the flammulated owl."
One ground disturbance in evidence was the muddy tracks of Mount Jumbo's wintering elk herd, which left piles of droppings all over the saddle. The previous winter's deep snows pushed the elk on to Jumbo's open spaces in remarkable numbers, but they also made use of the thick timber for thermal cover. As he cleared out the thickets, Moore said he was aiming for a balanced mix of wildlife habitat and plant improvement.
"Look around - there's no skid trails," Moore said. "It's just been left alone for years. Once we clear away some of the competition for light and nutrients, this area should really explode in the next 10 years."
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.