Dave Ring leads the management of the Stillwater State Forest, the oldest state forest in Montana, but much of his focus is actually on the future of the ecosystem.
“We were officially established as a forest in 1925, but I’m thinking about what it’s going to be like in 2025,” he said. “I want to build on what’s been given to me and make sure I’m giving something good to the next generation of foresters.”
Ring is the Unit Manager for the Stillwater State Forest, a 93,000-acre section of land near Olney that is the largest state forest under the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
Sitting in his office inside a log building that was constructed in 1922, Ring reflects on what it means to be a forester — the person that is able to manage the forest through the use of a renewable resource, while still providing it protection for the future.
“We try to mimic the natural ecological features of the forest — fire and insects — through extracting the resource and allowing the forest to regenerate,” he said. “While also generating revenue through the resource.”
Ring was recently named DNRC’s Forester of the Year, an award that is based on nominations from peers around the state.
Sonya Germann, the DNRC Forest Management Bureau Chief, said the selection committee for the award agreed that Ring is one of the DNRC’s finest employees and that his work has been pivotal in legacy projects on the Stillwater.
“Dave is an exemplary employee and he goes above and beyond to uphold the integrity of forest management,” she said. “He has a passion for good forestry management.”
Ring has served as unit manager for the Stillwater for the last year, but has spent 12 years at the Stillwater in forestry positions. A graduate of the University of Montana, Ring began his career in private forester jobs and spent 10 years working for the Washington state Department of Natural Resources before moving with his wife Wendy Compton-Ring to Whitefish.
Ring grew up in Wyoming and was attending junior college in his home state when a brochure for the forestry program at UM prompted him to look into the field that he knew would fit with his goal to work outdoors.
Working in Washington, he found that serving as the manager of state trust lands was a mission he could embrace. Montana’s DNRC is responsible for suppressing wildland fires and for maintaining the health of Montana’s forests. The DNRC Trust Land Management Division manages over 5 million acres of land and holds those lands in trust for the financial benefit of K-12 schools and state universities.
“Trust lands fit well with what I thought of forestry,” he said. “Trust lands with its mission to generate revenue for schools, I thought was a really neat thing.”
When Ring applied to work in the Stillwater, it was an area he was familiar with after years of family tips from Washington to Fernie, British Columbia, on vacation and a place he was intrigued by while driving through.
Today he’s tasked with working alongside the almost 20 fulltime and seasonal employees who work to balance the management of the Stillwater — fire protection, timber harvest, habitat conservation and recreation.
Ring says over the years recreation has become an interesting piece of forestry management. The Whitefish Trail, a planned 42-mile trail loop system, runs through a mix of federal, private and state trust lands, is a prime example of recreational use in the state forest. In the winter, Dog Sled Adventures based in Olney runs tours through the Stillwater and Great Northern Powder Guides takes skiers into the backcountry of the state forest.
Ring notes that logging, ecosystem protection and recreation can all exist on the forest at the same time, while still providing financial support for the schools.
“Generating revenue has been the guiding principal,” he said. “It’s neat that someone can also make a living doing what they love on our forest, while we still do what we do to manage the forest.”
“Recreation can generate revenue and that can help and can help with our mission,” he adds. “It may not generate at the rate that forest management does or a more commercial endeavor, but it’s still something that needs to be recognized. We need to find ways to make recreation work on our forests and still meet our mandate.”
Though he’s stuck in the office more often these days, Ring still relishes making it out into the field.
“There’s the days you get to ride a Sno-Cat out into the peace and quiet,” he said. “You get to walk in the woods and see animals you would never see — those are special days.”