On the slopes of 4,200-foot Garfield Peak, Robert Yellow Fox III can gaze down at the charred landscape of the Ashland Divide stretching to the horizon in every direction.
The legacy of last summer’s Ash Creek fire complex doesn’t look too bad now as fresh green grasses poke through ash and a smokeless blue sky hangs overhead. But once the grass cures in summer heat and the glow of the sun gets harsher, black skeletons of dead trees and orange skirts of singed survivors will stand as stark reminders of the worst Montana fire season in more than 100 years.
Yellow Fox, 38, peers beyond the seared hills between Lame Deer and Ashland to two or three generations of future Northern Cheyenne.
“My great-grandchildren should be able to hunt these hills,” the Lame Deer man said.
Yellow Fox is part of Crew C, one of three 10-man crews hired by the Northern Cheyenne Tribe to reforest 9,182 acres burned in the Ash Creek fire and another 8,290 acres consumed in the Black Springs fire complex in 2011.
It’s a quarter past 11 a.m. and in the six hours since his day began, Yellow Fox has already planted about 800 trees. Before the day is finished in early afternoon, he will have put about 1,000 seedlings in the ground.
Crew C admits it’s the slowest of the three teams. Each of its 10 planters sows about 1,000 trees a day. Crew B planters, led by Richard Bear Quiver, average about 1,500 trees each. His cousin, Mary Bear Quiver, heads the planters of Crew A, who each average 2,000 a day.
Fire regularly engulfs large chunks of the southeast Montana reservation, and every spring for the last 13 years Yellow Fox has toiled at the exacting work of rebuilding forests. Others have been at it even longer.
“I’ve walked the whole reservation twice and planted about 3 million trees,” said Clovis Wilson, 51, of Lame Deer. “I’ve been doing this for 22 years. It’s like a spring job. In the fall I pick up pine cones.”
Pine cone recovery in September and October is crucial to restoring Northern Cheyenne forests, said Terry Spang, tribal forester. The cones are sent to the Montana State Forestry Nursery in Missoula, where new trees are sprouted, then frozen for the winter, he said.
In the spring, at about 6 months old, they are packed 25 to a plastic bag, boxed and shipped back to the Northern Cheyenne Forestry Department.
“It works better if we have our own tree stock,” Spang explained.
Seedlings, with their roots tightly bound in a slender root ball about 6 inches long, come from two habitats — the chokecherry and snowberry. Snowberry is slightly drier. Seedlings are returned to their original habitat. Survival rate is between 80 and 90 percent, Spang said.
The tribal forester said planting was delayed about two weeks by cold weather and frozen ground, so there is some urgency in getting the seedlings in the ground.
“These trees can’t wait,” he said. “They’ll die on us.”
Ponderosa pine on the reservation take about 150 years to mature enough to reproduce, Spang said, adding that there are many trees on the reservation 300 to 400 years old.
Working about 12 feet apart, members of the planting crew punch holes in rocky soil and drop a seedling in each.
“You have to make sure the spacing’s right,” said Jerome Whitehawk, 43, lead inspector for Crew C. “The root has to be straight down and covered solid.”
Whitehawk has been on a reforestation crew for the last 12 seasons, sometimes covering land that has been reburned and replanted a couple of times already.
“A lot of us have become masters at this,” Yellow Fox said. “We’ve got it measured out in our heads. I know that if I take three steps it’s 12 feet. We have it implanted in our brains.”
Sinking 1,000 trees a day is hard manual labor, said Deana Spotted Eagle, 29, of Birney, who is one of two women working on the crews. Start time is 4:30 each morning, and Sunday is the only day off, she said. They get up early because planting cannot continue once the temperature reaches 75 degrees.
How does she get through it?
“I don’t think about it; I just don’t think about,” she said, pausing on the hillside a few minutes to let her respiration return to normal.
Spotted Eagle, who works for Head Start when she’s not employed by the Forestry Department, is on her second year with Crew C.
“I do it for our Cheyenne people and Mother Earth,” she said.
Yellow Fox has nothing but praise for Spotted Eagle’s efforts.
“It’s a hard job for a woman,” he said. “She can keep up with me. She’s one of the boys.”
The Ash Creek complex left a dozen families homeless and 245,224 acres scorched, including 43,003 acres on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. A recovery plan identified more than 9,000 acres that needed reforestation because the hot fire had so thoroughly cooked the forest.
“There are no tree sources left for reseeding,” Spang said. “In places the ash is a foot deep.”
Ash Creek wasn’t the only major fire on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation last summer. Two other fires incinerated big chunks of the 445,000-acre reservation. All totaled, 12,387 acres from that fire season alone is scheduled for reforestation.
Spang said the reseeding projects will take three years and 3.7 million trees. Each tree costs about 30 cents.
Many of those planting trees this spring will spend the summer fighting fire. Some are already in the process of qualifying to join Northern Cheyenne fire crews. It’s a good thing, Spang said.
“The way they are talking, this year might be worse than last year,” he said. “After July, it’s supposed to be really dry.”