HELENA — On Wednesday, Gov. Greg Gianforte joined state, federal and local officials on a tour of a timber project just outside Helena. The visit was intended to highlight cooperation on forest management and bring attention to the need for wildfire mitigation.
“We have a forest health crisis here in the state,” Gianforte said.
Gianforte toured the Brooklyn Bridge timber sale, in the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest south of Unionville. He was joined by representatives from the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, the city of Helena and Lewis and Clark County.
The tour also covered the burn scar of the Lump Gulch Fire, which burned through the project area in June 2020.
The Brooklyn Bridge project is part of the Good Neighbor Authority, a partnership between state and federal agencies that allows them to share the responsibility for forest management projects. In this case, the USFS did the planning work for the sale, while DNRC handled the bidding process – eventually selling the timber to Marks Lumber of Clancy.
The goal of the GNA is to get complex management projects going sooner.
“We have a lot of shared priorities,” said Gary Ellingson, a GNA forester with DNRC. “So part of it is also to ignore the fence – the ownership boundary between Forest Service, BLM, state, private – and allow a single entity to work across those boundaries to get the common needs accomplished.”
The project area originally included 640 acres, or one square mile. Leaders say that section of forest was extremely dense, with many beetle-killed trees, downed timber and snags. They say the harvesting has cleared out about 70 tons of fuel per acre.
Marks Lumber had just begun logging work in June when the wind-driven Lump Gulch Fire came through the area. It eventually burned about 1,000 acres, including about 120 in the timber sale area.
Leaders said much of the vegetation in the area was still green when the fire started. If it had started later in the year – when it was hot and dry – they say it could have been much worse.
“We’re only a couple of miles as the crow flies from town, Unionville’s right below us – it could have been a devastating fire; we just lucked out with the weather and the fact the wind subsided that night,” Ellingson said. “This project is about putting a fuel break up here on the landscape, so in future events like that, hopefully we can stop the fire here before it gets to town.”
The timber that burned in the fire is no longer usable, so those acres were removed from the sale. Marks Lumber is expected to resume logging operations on the remaining acres in June.
Gianforte said the Brooklyn Bridge project can serve as an important example.
“Working collaboratively with the Forest Service, the Department of the Interior, and DNRC really leading the effort, we need to treat more acres to make our forests healthier and make them more wildfire resistant,” he said.
Gianforte said, this year, he’s calling for the state to double the number of acres that undergo forest treatment like this – from about 11,000 in 2020 to about 25,000. However, he says that is only a small step toward addressing a maintenance backlog of 4 million acres statewide.