Western Field Trip, Part 3: Adventures in Montana
by Emily Myron -- June 12th, 2012
After bidding Idaho a fond farewell, we drove our trusty vans to Missoula, Montana. Missoula is a charming college town, home to the University of Montana, tons of outdoor recreation stores, delicious restaurants and breweries, and the International Wildlife Film Festival (how timely!). However, rather than settling in at one of the many hotels throughout the city, we continued a long-standing tradition of Western Field Trips by sleeping on the floor of the Missoula Loyola Sacred Heart High School gym (see picture). After unrolling the wrestling mats and getting situated, we went out to enjoy the variety of delicious food and drink available in Missoula. After an early night, we returned to the back-wrecking comfort of the gym floor.
After learning a bit about private natural resource industries through our mine tour, it was time to learn about some Federal management going on at Lolo National Forest. We met with John Waverek, a fire management officer, and Shane Hendrickson, a fisheries biologist, to discuss some of the challenges they face in managing the 2 million acres of forest (divided up into several management entities).
We discussed the challenges of prescribed burns in the area, as the Forest has both in-holdings and is located near some pretty substantial urban centers. The land ownership looks like a checkerboard, which is a remnant of the government giving land for railroad development. Therefore, the Forest and land trusts, like TNC, are trying to acquire more land so that management can occur at a watershed level, rather than based on the checkerboard of land ownership.
We learned that the Forest is really big on collaboration with the local community; however, this poses the risk of moving away from science-based management to ‘social-based’ management. While the Forest has been successful in carrying out several prescribed burns to reduce fuel loads, as well as to create food for wildlife, many burns have been met with resistance from the local communities. Therefore, there are different fire management zones (with wilderness areas being managed differently, too), and the team is extra vigilant during the summer, when dry conditions, high winds, and built-up fuel loads create the perfect combination for a large wildfire. Finally, John took us to several controlled burn sites so that we could see how the forest regenerates after a fire event (see pictures abover for a few examples).
Shane then told us about a project he is involved in to determine in which rivers small culverts block fish migration and movement. After a substantial mapping project, the Forest Service has identified the blockages to bull trout and cutthroat trout and is now in the process of replacing the small culverts with wider, fish-friendly bridges.
If you’re interested, you can go here to learn more about what is going on at Lolo National Forest.
After learning so much about planned fires versus wildfires, it was time for a trip to the Missoula Smokejumper Base. In case you have never heard of them (I hadn’t!), smokejumpers are courageous men and women who’s jobs it is to “travel all over the country, including Alaska, to provide highly-trained, experienced firefighters and leadership for quick initial attack on wildland fires in remote areas” (the Smokejumper website explained that much better than I could have…).
Our host, Tory, showed us their aircraft, training facilities, parachutes, and gear. Essentially, a team of smokejumpers are dropped at the site of a wildfire, and they work to contain and extinguish that fire. They are dropped tools, food and water so that they can self-sufficiently fight the fire for at least 48 hours.The training sounded extremely intense, with pack tests carrying all their gear, as well as parachute training and physical tests of strength. Thank goodness for these folks – definitely integral in fighting wildfires – but a career for which I am not at all suited (not only am I no where near that brave, but I am also pretty sure the jumpsuit alone would weigh enough to make me fall down).
In an area where fire is such an integral part of the ecology of the system, it was fascinating to learn about so many different facets of fire management. Fire will always be a controversial management topic (I mean, who really wants a fire raging near their homes), but in this part of the country, fire will always be a reality. Fortunately, we met a bunch of passionate, knowledgeable folks who are willing to take on the challenge of caring for this ecosystem and the people that live in it.