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By Zoie Koostra

What is Going on in Big Larch Campground?


July 26, 2018

Micah Drew, Pathfinder

Seeley Lake District Ranger Rachel Feigley said that the work won't likely start until towards the end of summer when the campground would normally close. Pathfinder file photo

SEELEY LAKE - Big Larch Campground remains closed. Why hasn't it reopened? Why hasn't work started? Why was it even closed in the first place?

Sheryl Gunn, a Forest Service silviculturist, worked on the removal of lodgepole pines from Big Larch in 2009 and recently completed another plan on how to handle the current situation. She and Seeley Lake District Ranger Rachel Feigley answered some of the most pressing questions about the campground and the work being done.

Why can't anybody camp in Big Larch?

The main danger in the campground is falling trees, most of which are overmature Douglas fir. According to Gunn, the Douglas fir tree is a shade tolerant species, meaning it is able to grow under the larger canopy of larch trees present in the campground. However, this ability to grow below the canopy means the trees are more prone to root diseases.

"Root and butt rot is severely impacting the trees on this campground," Gunn said. "It starts to decay the roots up to the bottom six feet of the tree, so the whole structural part that's holding these trees up is now in a decay state from this disease."

Because the roots and bottom trunk are the structure meant to hold the tree up, this makes the area extremely dangerous for campers because of the high probability of falling trees. Gunn said that the likelihood of a tree falling in an area where it could hurt a camper or damage property is very high.

Why have so many trees been affected by the same thing? Is the forest unhealthy?

Spread through root-to-root contact or through spores in the soil, the root diseases remain present in the soil at all times. The only thing keeping a tree from becoming infected is the tree's ability to resist the disease.

In the same way that stress can affect the immune systems of humans and animals, trees can get stressed as well. Age, lack of water and competition with other densely packed trees for resources are all factors that can affect tree health and in a densely forested area like Big Larch, where the Douglas fir trees are all very old and near the end of their life spans, this is especially true.

"As these trees get older and older, they succumb and they start to fall," Gunn said.

What do beetles have to do with the problem?

Another factor adding to the need to clear trees from Big Larch is the threat of the Douglas fir beetle, which specifically targets Douglas fir trees that are already old, weakened or dead, like the ones in the campground and around Seeley Lake.

"It will start to build populations in downed trees because they have no defenses," Gunn said. "That's what we've been noticing is happening in the Big Larch Campground."

Because the trees of the campground are not isolated from other parts of the forest, a high population of the beetle in the campground has the potential to spread to other weakened trees. This poses a significant problem because of the proximity to the trees affected or weakened by the Rice Ridge fire in summer of 2017.

"If it's an injured tree, Douglas fir beetle will hone in on that and they begin to build populations very, very rapidly," Gunn said. "It could be dramatic, if the right things align for an outbreak to happen."

Why Big Larch? Are there other areas of Montana experiencing the same problems?

Kathy Bushnell, Public Affairs Officer for the Helena Lewis and Clark National Forest, said that their region has experienced campground closures due to both root and butt diseases as well as beetle infestations.

"We've had at least one campground closed every year for the last 10 years," Bushnell said. "This year there are three."

One campground, Crystal Lake near Lewistown, has been closed for almost three years.

"What we saw with Crystal Lake this year and last year is hazardous soil conditions and resource conditions," Bushnell said. "We have to wait for it to dry up so it doesn't cause damage when we go in there with heavy equipment."

Currently, there are no conditions in Big Larch which would prevent the removal of the hazard trees as soon as the necessary contracts are secured.

Couldn't the Forest Service have done something to prevent this?

Ten years ago when the Forest Service was cutting down lodgepole pines in the campground, they also treated the Douglas fir trees with a chemical called MCH to protect the trees from beetle infestation. However, there's no treatment to prevent root rot and there's no way to prevent trees from getting old.

"Trees get old and die," Gunn said. "Douglas fir are not super long lived trees like larch or ponderosa pine."

Gunn said that it is important for people to recognize that what's occurring in Big Larch is part of a natural ecological cycle. A lack of fire in a forest environment can cause other disturbance mechanisms like bugs or disease to act as "controls" on a high-density area.

Why hasn't removal started yet? If the contract is "indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity" does that mean they can wait as long as they want to do the project?

Seeley Lake District Ranger Rachel Feigley said that the delay of the Big Larch cleanup has been caused by nothing other than too many tasks and not enough resources.

"It's unfortunate that we have a lot of other priorities like the post-fire work and the salvage," she said. "This is something we really wanted to move forward with but there's too many other projects going on."

According to Feigley, she and her team are working on a task order which will set out the requirements for the project such as the amount of work that needs to be done and the time frame by which it needs to be completed. Then that task order will be turned into the Forest Service Acquisition Management office in Missoula for approval. Once it is approved, the office will choose a contractor to complete the project.

An Indefinite Delivery, Indefinite Quantity contract is not as arbitrary as it sounds. The "indefinite" parts refer to how much work a pre-approved contractor for the Forest Service might do without specifying that amount when their contract is approved. If an IDIQ contractor is chosen to do work for the Forest Service, that work must be completed to the specifications of the task order, which will stipulate details like when and how many trees need to be removed.

"We already were not able to get the work started when we predicted," Feigley said. "It's likely going to be towards the end of the summer when we would normally close the campground."

What will be done with the downed trees?

Provided by Seeley Lake Ranger District

Seeley Lake Ranger District Recreation Staff Chad Mullman cutting a hazard tree near one of the group sites that is currently open in Big Larch Campground. Most of the trees that are cut and down in the campground were from the spring hazard tree work. District Recreation Supervisor Katie Knotek said they focused on the group campsites, day use area and boat launch/parking area since there were fewer hazard trees in those areas that could be mitigated by our staff and allow them to be open for the 2018 season.

The contractor will do the work, put the trees into a log deck and then the Forest Service will pay for those actual services. It will then turn around and sell the log decks to whatever mill is interested in large Douglas fir.

"The value of the wood can be salvaged and sold and produce jobs and can better the economy that way," Gunn said.

What does all this mean for the future of Big Larch?

Since the work that was done on the campground in 2009, some regeneration of larch trees has begun to occur. Gunn said that the space created by removing the Douglas fir from the campsite will allow those young larch trees the room they need to continue growing.

Since larch have a much longer lifespan than Douglas fir or lodgepole pine, the campground won't need as much maintenance in the future. Larch trees are also much hardier and less susceptible to disease.

"I feel really positive about this campground versus some of the others I've worked in," Gunn said. "There's huge larch that are going to stay, there's beautiful young larch coming in and I hope people can be patient and understand that it's going to look different."


Reader Comments

Justwondering writes:

How does the condition of the trees keep the dock at the boat ramp from being put in for the season?


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