HELENA — A Helena area couple, Pat and Judy McKelvey were recently recognized for their work in being good stewards of private forest land. The two were named the Montana Tree Farm System 2020 Tree Farmers of the Year.
“It was a wonderful surprise, and it felt like the hard work we’ve put in was worth the time and effort,” said Judy.
When people hear the term tree farmers, images of Christmas trees or maybe even large timber operations may come to mind. For the McKelveys, and hundreds of landowners like them across the state, it’s about managing their property for a healthy forest.
“The Montana Tree Farm program is part of a national organization. It’s geared to the education of forestry practices towards stewardship, proper stewardship. It’s very much related to how can you make your timbered or forested property better,” said Pat.
Under the American Tree Farm System, woodland owners need to recognize wildlife habitat, protection of water quality, threatened and endangered species, and sustainable harvest levels.
Forests are living things, constantly growing and dying. Tree farmers seek to manage a forest in a similar way to other organized agriculture and ensure it is sustainable and healthy.
The McKelveys both have considerable forestry experience having spent their careers in forestry related fields before retiring.
Traveling south from Helena to Butte, it’s clear to see how heavily the area has been affected by pine beetles. The area is littered with fallen or dead standing trees that can pose a serious safety issue for anyone traveling in the area. Yet the McKelvey property south of Helena doesn’t seem to have the same issues with forest health, which the couple attributes to years of hard work.
For more than a decade, the couple have been continually working their hundreds of acres of private forest. Clearing hazardous trees is only one part of their stewardship, as they also work and even use pheromones to help get a handle on pine beetles. They have also worked hard to keep noxious weeds under control.
“Noxious weeds are a tremendous problem in the entire state,” said Judy. “We’re trying to control those but it’s an ongoing effort. There will never be eradication but we try to keep them down to a minimum so we can keep the productivity of the natural species.”
The work the McKelveys have done goes far beyond their own lands. By maintaining and being good stewards of their own land, it benefits their neighbors and the surrounding areas. Keeping a handle on noxious weeds means there are less opportunities for seeds to spread, which ultimately helps farmers. Proper mitigation helps reduce the severity of wildland fires and provides better habitat for wildlife.
The McKelveys work is only a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things. 5.3 million acres of Montana’s forests are privately owned, the McKelveys are stewards of a couple hundred. Thankfully, they’re not alone in their efforts.
There are hundreds of land owners taking part in the Montana Tree Farm program covering 162,000 acres of forest land.
“Many of our neighbors are involved in this as well, and we have other neighbors who are a part of the tree farm program and are working on their grounds. That is protecting everybody,” said Pat.
The more woodland owners that join the Montana Tree Farm program, the larger the impact can be. Pat and Judy strongly encourage any landowner with forested property to take a look at the program.