When it came time to recognize someone for the 2015 Field Forester Award, the Society of American Foresters’ local chairman, Brad French, didn’t have to look far for the perfect candidate.
The organization’s local chapter recently honored Allen Chrisman with the designation, citing his more than 35 years of work in practically every aspect of forest management and stewardship.
Wildfires have consumed much of Chrisman’s career with the Forest Service, but he’s done everything from on-the-ground timber sale planning to forestry consulting, writing management plans for National Forests and working with a multitude of organizations dedicated to forest stewardship.
“He’s really put in a lot of good say over the years,” French said. “He’s worked on a lot of fire mitigation and has worked on policy on some of these large fires. Obviously in his regular work, they do a lot of planning, working not just with fire but with forestry.”
Chrisman grew up in Illinois, but his ties to Western Montana stretch back to the age of 4 months.
Starting when he was just a toddler, he spent the summers at his family’s forested property up the North Fork, relishing the opportunity to explore the thickly wooded area.
“From the time I first became conscious of where we were in the National Forest, the mountains and the forests were something I loved,” he said. “I would write about it in school and I would dream about it at night.”
That passion led him to the University of Montana’s forestry program, which he justified to his father as a chance to spend his workdays in places most people only visit on vacations.
By the time he was an undergrad taking forestry classes, he said he realized that the way forests were being managed in the 1970s was incompatible with their basic ecology.
“They didn’t want anything to change, and even as a forestry student I knew that forests are always changing, whether you want them to or not,” he said. “The things we do in the forest have impacts over future decades and centuries. It’s not something you’re going to paint over on the side of the house. It’s something that’s going to influence future generations.”
His love of forest management took him first to the Flathead National Forest’s Hungry Horse Ranger District, and then throughout the Northwest to the Siskiyou, Beaverhead, Kaniksu and Idaho Panhandle national forests.
In the early ’70s, he also worked on the St. Joe Regional Fire Crew, which was a precursor to modern hot shot crews.
In wildfire management, he’s done everything from swinging a Pulaski to working as a deputy fire team leader on a Type II team in the Idaho Panhandle, and eventually wound up back in the Flathead National Forest as that forest’s fire management officer.
Over the decades, his accumulation of forest, fire and wildlife habitat management has helped to influence many of his neighbors.
Chrisman’s company, A.B Chrisman Forest Management Service, primarily focuses on managing his family’s private forest, but he said he runs a sort of informal consulting service for other residents of the North Fork.
“I give free advice to my neighbors. I’ve got an opinion, and you’re entitled to it,” he said with a laugh.
That price is more than right given Chrisman’s resume. He officially retired in 2008, after four years as the Flathead National Forest’s fire management officer.
Ending up back on the Flathead was the perfect book-end to his career, he said, and gave him the opportunity to help rebuild the forest’s relationship with the local community in the divisive aftermath of the 71,000-acre Moose Fire of 2001.
He said the overhead team brought in to manage the fire was from North Carolina, and unfamiliar with the region’s unique terrain and fuels. He said there was little coordination between the team and county responders, who are tasked with defending private land and structures in the wildland-urban interface.
“Because the fire was making a run, the over head team pulled out and [local firefighters] were unsupported, which is unacceptable,” he said. “At one point, Flathead County held the forest responsible for every new start that threatened private land.”
He listed Mark Peck, Dan Cassidy, Lincoln Chute and Wally Bennett has some of the other fire team leaders who helped repair the relationship into one of which he believes the county should be proud.
Always humble, Chrisman said his accomplishments in keeping Northwest Montana’s forests healthy were built on those shoulders of his predecessors.
“There were so many people that came before me, and well, we were keeping the lights on for them,” he said.
Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at email@example.com.