MISSOULA — In the dictionary, a watershed can be a place defined by a specific river or drainage, or a crucial dividing point in time.
Last year featured watersheds of both kinds for the U.S. Forest Service’s Region 1, which has its headquarters in Missoula. In a year when the agency tried to stretch its influence across watershed or landscape scale, it also confronted forces like wildfire and bug epidemics that may force big changes in how it does its work.
“We’re a relatively small player in overall forest dynamics,” said Gene DeGayner, the region’s director of renewable resource management. “This year, we’ll treat with commercial timber sales about 12,000 acres a year, regionwide. We’ll do maybe another 8,000 acres of pre-commercial thinning.
“But we’re looking at 6 million acres of beetle kill. Last year, we had more than 1 million acres burned. What we can affect with mechanical treatment is 1 percent of 1 percent of the region. We are a small player. We cannot move the needle on a lot of these issues.”
The 2012 Year in Review publication released last week on the Internet features 24 pages of stories of projects, awards and accomplishments in Region 1. In its introduction, Regional Forester Faye Krueger invited readers to “look at this publication as the bridge to how much more we can accomplish in 2013.”
The agency cast a somewhat bigger shadow in less labor-intensive efforts like noxious weed management and prescribed burning. But DeGayner said a large chunk of its expected timber harvest stalled in lawsuits challenging the Colt-Summit forest restoration project near Seeley Lake.
That project was the keynote of the Forest Service’s latest tactic for getting stuff done in the woods: the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program. These pilot projects got special funding from Congress to see if a combination of including community members in the planning, bartering timber for restoration work, and seeking matching funds from state or private sources might speed up workflow.
In Region 1, CFLRP provided about $9 million in operating funds, which was to be matched 1-to-1 in partnership agreements. The biggest local effort was the Southwestern Crown Collaborative, to do logging and landscape restoration in the Lolo, Helena and Flathead national forests. It claimed credit for producing 32 million board feet of sawlogs, 18,834 acres of noxious weed treatment, 19 miles of stream restoration and 268 miles of trail maintenance between 2010 and 2012. It’s allocated $4 million a year in CFLRP funding for 10 years.
“We’ve got a good portion of that program tied up in litigation, but we hope to prevail on those this year,” DeGayner said.
A federal district judge ruled in favor of the Forest Service on nine of 10 claims, but ordered it to provide more explanation how the project might affect threatened lynx habitat. DeGayner said that extra paperwork would not change the size or scope of the project.
The other main way the Forest Service cut trees last year was through travel safety projects that clear beetle-killed stands along roads. In 2012, it tallied about 500 miles of easement clearing, which paid for itself by the sale of timber.
Region 1has lost almost a quarter of the staff it had at the peak of the past decade, when it employed 2,840 full- and part-time workers in 2003. Last year, after shedding some of the temporary additional workers from the federal economic stimulus program in 2009 and 2010, the region’s personnel totaled 2,150 people.
Only the Helena National Forest has remained close to its peak employment, while the Bitterroot, Kootenai and Idaho Panhandle forests have declined by more than 44 percent. The Nez Perce National Forest – before it was combined with the Clearwater this year – had less than half the people it needed in 2001.
Those personnel reductions may show up in reduced recreation services, according to George Bain, who oversees recreation, minerals, lands, heritage and wilderness for Region 1.
“One nice thing about this region its year-round recreation opportunities,” Bain said. “But the demand is growing, and our ability to sustain those opportunities is a struggle. We recognize we may have to reduce some things or move them from where they currently are. We cannot meet the demand, so it’s really important for us to keep working with partners.”
Bain said although other parts of the country have successfully added user fees to cover the costs of campgrounds, picnic areas, trails and roads, the idea has met serious resistance in the West. He said he had no plans to impose such fees in Region 1.
That makes teamwork with local groups like the Backcountry Horsemen and Montana Conservation Corps more important, Bain said. The annual report touted several projects that reached goals through the help of other groups. For example, Butte’s Thompson Park got new walking paths, picnic areas and connections other trail networks along the Continental Divide. A state Natural Resources Damage Program grant provided most of the money, and AmeriCorps, Montana Conservation Corps, Highland Cycling Club and Mile High Backcountry Horsemen crews participated in the work.
On the fire front, 2012 produced record amounts of damage nationwide. Montana caught its share, but fortunately never reached the level of crisis many anticipated.
“For me last year, the interesting thing was the length of the fire season,” said Region 1 director of fire, aviation and management Patti Koppenol. “We weren’t busy in all parts of the region all the time. It started early in eastern and central Montana, but when the Ash Creek fire in Colorado got going, we had flood warnings in the Kootenai and Flathead forests. Then it ended late in central Idaho well into October.”
About 1.4 million acres burned in Montana last year. Another 8 million burned nationwide, raising comparisons to the horrific 1910 fire season. But Koppenol said Montana’s fires were distinctive for something other than size.
“What we’ve experienced is pretty aggressive fire behavior in bark-beetle areas,” she said. “If the forest is in green attack phase, or gone to red needles, its transition from surface fire to crown fire happens really quickly.”
Fires in the upper crowns of trees grow faster and tend to do more lasting damage than those that burn along the forest floor. That makes them more dangerous to fight. It also results in more frequent landslides and erosion as the burned area takes longer to revegetate.
“It’s tough to say if it’s the new normal or not,’ Koppenol said. “We’ve had larger seasons like 2000, or ’03 or ’07, with wetter years in between. Certainly in the central United States, the Rocky Mountain region, we’re thinking that area could be in line for another busy season. Colorado had fire on the Front over Christmas. But for us, most of the region except for southern tier is showing out of drought conditions.”