After a contentious year of public debate, the Marshall Woods forest thinning project has started showing results.
Hikers and bikers along the main Rattlesnake National Recreation Area trail corridor couldn’t miss the dozens of head-high piles of slash around the Spring Gulch trail intersection. Immature tree stands shady enough to support mushrooms have been replaced with sunny vistas punctuated by big Ponderosa pines.
“It looks like they’ve done a thoughtful job,” said hiker Kathy McCort on Tuesday morning. “You wonder about the habitat cover – the wildlife will have to make arrangements because they can’t move as covertly anymore. You can see a lot more than you could before.”
A private contract crew hired by the Lolo National Forest finished its first 120 acres of work Monday. They concentrated on the initial 2 miles of meadow and flat ground above the main recreation area parking lot.
In a few days, they will shift to the Woods Gulch area, east of the parking lot, where they will continue to thin small trees and hazardous fuels near private property.
Plans to do forest management work in the hills north of Missoula came and went for most of the past decade as community members discussed the scope of the work necessary. The landscape ranges from the congressionally designated Rattlesnake Wilderness Area beginning 3 miles north of the parking lot to former commercial timberlands on the east side of Mount Jumbo, one creek drainage over.
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A roundtable of forestry, environmental and community interests has long agreed on the need for rehabilitation in the Marshall Creek drainage’s old logging scars. But the coalition broke apart over proposals to allow some commercial logging in the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area south of the federal wilderness.
The latest version of the Marshall Woods project was unveiled last summer, but bogged down over objections to its more intensive treatment plans along the Rattlesnake trail corridor. Most of those items were withdrawn in the final environmental assessment released in January. But Missoula District Ranger Jen Henseik retained the hazardous fuels treatments intended to restore some of the open forest character along Rattlesnake Creek.
“Some people had no idea any work was being planned, and they’re curious as to what’s going on,” said Dave Atkins, a retired Forest Service forester on temporary contract to explain the project to the public in the Rattlesnake. “So far, the overall reaction has all been positive.”
Atkins himself had objected to the earlier Marshall Woods plans for failing to do more extensive work on fuels reduction and thinning along Rattlesnake Creek.
The piles will remain until at least next spring. That should give them enough time to dry out so they can be burned when it’s safe to do so without risking a runaway fire. The piles have a layer of waxed paper near the top to keep the interior dry and make them burn more completely.
Other parts of the creek drainage may get a broadcast burn to knock back underbrush and help aspen and more mature conifers grow better. The work will also replace some culverts and other sediment problems impeding water quality in Rattlesnake Creek. Work crews treated the area to prevent the spread of invasive species like knapweed.
The landscape was a remarkable one for Alise Noel and Fabrice Camtraine, who were visiting the Rattlesnake with their toddler Anna from Belgium. Forests in Europe tend to be much more tightly managed and cultivated than American woods, they said.
“In Europe, all the woods are forested to get lumber out,” Camtraine said. “That’s part of the reason we like it here in Montana. As tourists we prefer this kind of scenery.”
“But it’s comparable to hunting,” Noel added. “In Europe where you don’t have predators hunting the deer, the deer are killing all the trees.”