Closing a chapter and welcoming the next

As we welcome the New Year, The Nature Conservancy was glad to end the last one with some good news. On Christmas Eve, we finalized another sale of more than 12,000 acres of land to the U.S. Forest Service. Together with a previous sale, more than 28,000 acres of former industrial timberland are now secure for wildlife habitat and public use.

“I’ve been involved with this project since the beginning,” said Todd Johnson, representative for Pyramid Mountain Lumber and Blackfoot Challenge board member. “I even went to Washington, D.C. to help make the case to the Forest Service that this checkerboard land west of Seeley needed to get in public hands. We all use this land for recreation and of course we’d hope to see it produce wood for the mill in years to come.”

The project was made possible because of another bit of good 2020 news; the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act and the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). This sale is the result of nearly 20 years of community-based, public-private partnership aimed at eliminating the ownership mix that made management of these lands challenging. So, there are many friends and neighbors who can take credit for this achievement!

But, now it’s time to look ahead.

In our last column, we talked about the forest thinning TNC has hired Potomac contractor Doug Hall to do near Placid Lake to reduce the threat of wildfire to the nearby community. Those efforts are important, as is all our forest restoration work. That said, we know fire is not just inevitable, it is a natural part of the forest life cycle. But, sadly, climate change is not only increasing the risk of extremely severe fires but is making it harder for forests to recover.

Although re-planting forests still means traversing thousands of acres of often rugged terrain, things aren’t the same as forty years ago. The climatic factors that are worsening our fire seasons – hotter, longer and drier summers – mean that soils are drying out. Today, seedlings are struggling to establish themselves, much less thrive, under those harsher conditions.

TNC is hoping to improve forest recovery by growing and planting seedlings from forests that are currently adapted to those hotter, drier conditions.

Along with researchers at the University of Montana and TNC chapters in six other states, we are creating models that examine where forests will come back naturally, where climate makes forests unlikely to survive and where forest may need some help re-establishing. We are focusing our efforts where it could mean the difference between a future forest or a field of shrubs.

Using seedlings grown by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe, TNC will be planting experimental plots; some with trees suited to current climate conditions and others with trees better suited to future climate conditions. In some cases, this will be what we call “assisted migration” – taking seedlings from lower elevation trees and moving them to higher elevations.

The results should lead to more successful post-fire re-generation. And since more fires appears to be on the horizon, the results can’t come soon enough.

And if you’ll allow us to switch gears again, many of us saw a great uptick in people using the great outdoors this past summer and fall. Many people have found solace in nature during our challenging times. But, in some places, all that use has taken a toll. Campsites left littered with trash, fires left to smolder and folks “pioneering” new campsites. TNC’s popular Owl Creek campground has long felt the impacts of heavy use, and sometimes, irresponsible users.

With limited staff, TNC has not been able to manage the site as well as we would like. For the past few years, local supporters have helped bear the cost of portable toilets to reduce the health risks posed by heavy use, but this year made us realize that we need to do more. So, we have joined with MT Fish, Wildlife & Parks to help us create a better plan for both nature and visitors. We’re exploring the value of creating designated campsites and adding amenities such as fire rings. Nothing has yet been decided and we welcome ideas from the community on improvements you’d like to see at Owl Creek. Contact Chris Bryant at


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