Last week I visited a cherished and protected little piece of Montana. It's a meadow of old growth ponderosa pine trees a little upstream from where the Blackfoot River joins the Clark Fork, northeast of Missoula.
The snow was crusty when I hopped out of the truck with guides from the Nature Conservancy, and Andrew Larson, a forest ecologist at the University of Montana. When we stopped to look around, the forest was almost entirely quiet. It's different here than the heavily managed and burned forest we drove several miles through to get here, to Primm Meadow, Larson told me.
"The main thing that I think defines the area that we were in, the context, is an absence of big trees," Larson said "We've got lots of trees there, but they're all small and the structure of the forest is really missing in a lot of ways."
That’s from previous heavy logging and fire. Now, we've entered the exact opposite, Primm Meadow, which has looked a lot like it does now for at least hundreds of years.
"The thing that jumps out immediately, visually, is this abundance of large diameter trees," Larson says. "You see a lot of orange when you look out across the snowy ground, you can see the big, orange-barked old growth trees."
The four of us and the two pickup trucks we came in in are dwarfed by the stand of big trees. The Nature Conservancy has owned Primm Meadow since 2015. It's part of a nearly 183-square mile parcel the Conservancy bought from Plum Creek.
Larson points out a large standing dead tree.
"This big snag here? You look at the branch architecture up there. See how big the branches are, and gnarly? They no longer have that Christmas tree model conforming growth form. You typically don't get that sort of a structure until a tree is 3- to-400 years old, and then that well developed, maybe 500 years old or older. So, when you see other live trees with that sort of crown architecture you can pretty confidently figure they're over 300, maybe 4-5-600 years old. That's just eyeballing it," Larson said.
Ponderosa are adapted to thrive in a landscape that burns every 25 years or so. Those fires burn out smaller trees, and the bigger ones have thick bark that can resist low-intensity, periodic fires.
Prior to European settlement, Salish and Pend Oreille people harvested sugar from inside the big pines’ bark, and periodically burned the meadow. The European families that came to own the area also kept it open to graze livestock and harvest hay. So, just because these trees have been here for centuries doesn't mean that there haven’t been disturbances.
"In fact the reason that they’ve been here for 500 years is because those frequent disturbances, especially frequent fires, prevented the forest from growing into a very flammable condition where when a fire occurs the energy release is so great that a majority of trees are killed," Larson said.
The Nature Conservancy, which took ownership of Primm Meadow in 2015, is planning to continue the cycle. It’s planning to do a prescribed burn here, but prior to that in December the Conservancy will log out the smaller trees, mostly Douglas fir, in and around Primm meadow.
They’ve grown up during the last 60 years of active fire suppression in much of the western US.
"We’re concerned that they provide a fuel ladder for a surface fire to move through the stands, and then climb up into these younger fir, and then up into the crowns of the surrounding old pines," The Nature Conservancy's Mike Schaedel said.
"We’re really trying to protect the old pines that are here, by removing those trees," he said.
The Nature Conservancy is paying Double Ott Trucking in Condon to cut and remove about 30 semi-truck loads of trees. The company says its a two-man job that will last about two weeks.
The logs will supply either the Pyramid Mountain timber mill in Seeley Lake or Weyerhaeuser’s in the Flathead Valley.
But the Nature Conservancy's Mike Schaedel said, "this is such a unique stand on the landscape that protecting and restoring it is a high priority. So we’re not looking to make any money off of this work. We see it as part of our role and our duty as managers and temporary owners of this land. Our hope with the commercial portion of the restoration project is that it comes close to breaking even."
The Nature Conservancy says its goal is to, within 10 years or so, to "find a permanent conservation solution” for Primm Meadow and the 117,000 acre tract of land surrounding it. That could involve transferring ownership to a federal land management agency like the U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management.
Logging work on Primm Meadow will probably start in mid-December, or whenever there’s enough snow on the ground to minimize disturbing the ground.