Business leaders from the Flathead Valley took in the scent of fresh-cut pine, the rumblings of a rubber-tired skidder and the buzz of chainsaws during the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce’s annual Flathead Timber Tour Thursday afternoon.
Jim Watson, owner of the 1,000-acre Spring Brook Ranch west of Kalispell on which the small logging operation took place, said the 34-acre project is part of a long-term management strategy to improve the health of his tree farm-certified private forest.
“What we’re doing is correcting past sins,” Watson told a group of attendees during the tour. “The philosophy and the training of the foresters, not too many years ago, was to remove the best trees at the lowest cost.”
That resulted in the best genetics getting weeded out, he added, rather than today’s focus on “leave trees.” At Spring Brook Ranch, that included the ponderosa pines, Western larches and Douglas firs that grow straightest and healthiest, and which Watson hopes will repopulate his land with the most commercially and ecologically beneficial offspring. The commercial thinning work being undertaken Thursday by Whitefish-based Jamison General Land Management is also geared toward reducing potential fire fuels while leaving a broad spread of tree species and age classes on the landscape.
But that “boutique” approach to forestry isn’t cheap. Montana Department of Natural Resources Forest Practices Program Manager Roger Ziesak explained that the project on Spring Brook Ranch had been made possible with the aid of the state’s Forests in Focus Program.
The 2013 Legislature authorized the program, which provides up to $5 million every two years from the state’s wildfire suppression fund to aid projects that meet criteria including hazardous fuel reduction, ecological restoration and commercial timber production.
“The idea is to get logs on trucks while we’re doing the right thing on the ground,” Ziesak said.
The program has been popular with private landowners, who collectively applied for nearly $7 million worth of grants during the program’s first biennium, out of just $2 million available for work on non-federal forest lands.
But that money isn’t intended as a handout, Ziesak added, noting that his department is “looking for projects that need financial assistance to happen.”
On Watson’s property, a small crew of workers used chainsaws to strip limbs from felled trees, then organized the logs by size with a skidder. Forester Mark Boardman with F.H. Stoltze Land & Lumber Co. explained that site-specific characteristics of such small-scale operations can add complications. Nestled within the thinning project’s boundaries was an apple orchard believed to potentially be the oldest in the Flathead Valley.
“The goal is to log it and kind of mimic a fire,” Boardman said, pointing to the 50- and 60-year-old ponderosa pines thickly dotting the hill. “This is a spot that would burn very often, maybe every 20 years.”
It will also provide some raw materials for the local timber industry, although the logging contractor Jamison Smith noted the project was a small one. Boardman estimated the 6-inch and 10-inch saw logs will yield about 10 truckloads of lumber for Stoltze — which was awarded the Forests in Focus grant to help fund the project — while the less valuable pulp logs will be processed into medium-density fiberboard at Weyerhaeuser’s plant in Columbia Falls.
Kalispell Chamber of Commerce President and Chief Executive Joe Unterreiner said he hoped attendees took away a more intimate understanding of the timber industry’s importance to Flathead County.
“I wanted people to get on-site in this beautiful place we live in, and have an appreciation for the industry and its contributions to our quality of life,” he said.
Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lee Cameron, a knot bumper Jamison Smith, removes limbs from the logs at a landing area at the Spring Brook Ranch fuel reduction project on Thursday. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)