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070112 swan river bridge

Anne Dahl, director of the Swan Ecosystem Center, watches as a new bridge is built across the Swan River near Piper Creek. It replaces a deteriorated bridge that was degrading bull trout habitat. With a $668,545 price tag, the bridge replacement would not occur without funds obtained through the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Project.

CONDON – Swan Lake District Ranger Rich Kehr stared with disbelief at a healthy, restored wetland and uttered what would become a familiar refrain on a recent sun-soaked afternoon in the Swan Valley.

“Normally, we just wouldn’t have any money to do this,” he said.

For the past 2 1/2 years, an unlikely coalition of tree huggers and timbermen, state and federal land managers, conservationists, local outfitters and valley residents has been quietly working on a flurry of restoration projects on the Flathead National Forest.

Together they have assembled an ambitious plan that aims to heal the forests and restore the wetlands, reduce wildfire risk, help wildlife and boost local economies by funneling $90 million over 10 years to lands in the Blackfoot, Clearwater and Swan river valleys.

“We’ve funded 94 restoration projects in the last three years in the Swan Valley,” Kehr said.

Funding for the restoration projects has come through the federal Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program. It’s one of 10 projects selected for funding nationwide under a federal initiative focused on collaborative projects that restore overworked ecosystems.

“Without CFLRP money this project wouldn’t be happening either,” Kehr said again, this time while standing alongside a bridge spanning the Swan River near Piper Creek. The new bridge will replace a deteriorated one that had fallen into the waterway resulting in large, woody debris pileups. With the old bridge gone, the logs and other debris will be distributed naturally along the banks of the Swan River, providing ideal habitat to bull trout and other native species.

With a $668,545 price tag, high-ticket projects like the Piper Creek bridge replacement would be a pipe dream, Kehr said, “especially with today’s Forest Service budget.”

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Other completed projects include a gravel borrow pit that was used to construct logging roads, and which was recently replanted with whitebark pine. Logging roads that crisscross the mountainside facing Lindberg Lake are being ripped, revegetated and restored by local contractors. A timber sale in the upper Swan Valley completed last winter has helped open up stands of old-growth Western larch and ponderosa pines, decreasing the risk of loss from insects, disease and wildfire.

The key to success, says Swan Lake District Ranger Kehr, is collaboration.

“There are no easy decisions in forest management,” he said. “We have knock-down battles over forest management in this country all of the time. But that changes with a little bit of community involvement, and we’re seeing that here.”

Anne Dahl, executive director of Swan Ecosystem Center and a self-professed “former hard-core tree hugger,” is an example of the kind of collaborative partnership that leads to well-informed restoration projects that meet a higher level of standards.

“This is allowing us to get a ton of work done that would otherwise not happen,” said Anne Dahl, director of the Swan Ecosystem Center.

The wetland restoration work is already bearing fruit, she said on a recent tour of the Condon Loop wetland, one of many sparkling jewels in the upper Swan Valley that were drained nearly a century ago by homesteaders in order to grow reed canary grass for hay. The invasive species has since crowded out native plants and transformed the rich wetland habitats into fields.

“Each of these 4,000-plus little gems in this valley is unique, with its own community of birds, terrestrial animals and amphibians,” said Tom Parker, who has worked as an outfitter and guide in the Swan Valley for more than 30 years. He is also the conservation specialist at Northwest Connections, which is committed to conservation and education projects in rural working landscapes.

“Grizzlies and black bear come from clear on the other side of Flathead Lake, clear on the other side of the Bob Marshall to utilize these wetlands,” he said. “Swan Valley is not a wildlife corridor to the Missions, it is a wildlife destination in itself. Whether you’re a bird or a bear, we’ve got everything here.”

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And because the CFLRP projects are being contracted locally whenever possible, there is also the potential for a lot of good-paying jobs.

According to projections by the Southwestern Crown of the Continent, the diverse partnership that developed the CFLRP proposal in 2009, the program will create 189 jobs annually and contribute $9 million a year in direct labor income, sustained over the 10-year period.

It will also deliver about 190 million board feet of saw logs and biomass material, restore 46,000 acres of forest land, reduce fire risk on 27,000 wooded acres close to homes, restore 1,000 miles of streams, provide weed treatment on 81,000 acres and maintain 280 miles of trails.

“This offers the opportunity to realize the potential of stewardship and restoration at the landscape level while providing multiple goods and services to benefit rural communities,” said Gordy Sanders, resource manager for Pyramid Mountain Lumber in Seeley Lake.

Kehr said the success of future restoration projects hinges on continued funding from Congress, which provided $4 million in fiscal years 2011 and 2012, and $1.3 million in fiscal year 2010.

The U.S. Forest Service qualified for CFLRP by matching funds to the projects, and the Wilderness Society asked for the max – $4 million a year over 10 years, plus $4 million in agency match, plus an additional $10 million to cover agency overhead.

The Swan Lake Ranger District is one of three Forest Service districts within the 1.5 million-acre Southwestern Crown of the Continent landscape that also includes the Seeley Lake Ranger District of the Lolo National Forest and the Lincoln District of the Helena National Forest. The CFLRP projects will occur on lands stretching east from Potomac to Lincoln, up through the southern Bob Marshall Wilderness complex, past Salmon Prairie to Swan Lake,and down the backbone of the Missions.

By cobbling together a diverse partnership, members of the Southwestern Crown Collaborative are optimistic they will be able to steer the future of forest management on public lands.

“We have had this vision for a very long time, and now the Forest Service is helping to put us on a better track,” Dahl said. “This is already seeing a big effect on the landscape in a very positive way.”

Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 730-1067 or at tscott@missoulian.com.

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