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Montana facing a forest health crisis

Montana is in a forest health crisis — a crisis that has been declared on both the state and federal levels.
Burned Log
Posted at 1:41 PM, Apr 15, 2024

MISSOULA — Montana is in a forest health crisis — a crisis that has been declared on both the state and federal levels.

This is because of prior years of mismanagement and fire mitigation that have allowed large amounts of overgrowth, which in turn acts as fuel for wildfires. There is a complex system used to manage forests and the decline of the lumber industry has further complicated the situation.

“We are dealing with a forest health and wildfire crisis in the state of Montana. You know, for a number of different reasons. Overtime our forests have become overgrown, more diseased, more fire-prone, and we’re all familiar with the smoke we’re all breathing all summer from these catastrophic wildfires," explained Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) division administrator Shawn Thomas.

Thomas is in charge of overseeing the management of the public land trusts for the state as well as generating revenue through commercial timber sales for K-through-12 schools. The timber sales that Thomas oversees in large part come from mills across the state, including Pyramid Mountain Lumber and Roseburg Forest Products.

The upcoming closures of two mills — both major employers in Western Montana — are creating economic concerns, ranging from the large number of people who are soon to be out of a job, a reduction in revenue for schools or the support that the communities around the mills receive.

In addition to the economic concerns, there is also the worry about how this will affect the health of Montana's forests. The mills play a key role in forest management and wildfire mitigation.

“You know, that workforce also is our workforce, right, the loggers, the log truck drivers, the contractors that supported Pyramid and relied on them for their, you know, the well-being of their businesses are the people who are oftentimes buying our timber sales or bidding on our fuels reduction contracts," Thomas told MTN. "So the health of that community is, is a concern.”

Forest management is a process that helps maintain forests through brush clearing, logging and prescribed burns.

Thomas says forests in Montana have been mismanaged, explaining that in the past, there was an effort to let forests grow and prevent fire at almost all costs. As the years of this type of management progressed, issues began to emerge — mainly the overgrowth and disease that became common in almost all forests.

The focus now has been on clearing overgrowth and making sure that the forests are able to complete its natural cycle of growth and replacement - replacement mainly through fire.

Despite all the challenges that the forest management system currently faces, it will continue to progress the health of our forest due to the government agencies and their private partnerships as well as community support.