Driven in part by a warmer climate and a hundred years of humans suppressing natural fire, the insects and parasitic mistletoe have a head start.
This spring, crews from the U.S. Forest Northern Region Timber Strike Team have fanned out across the timbered ridges and hillsides on portions of the 4,800 acres of the Gold Butterfly Project slated for commercial timber harvest to identify the trees that will be left behind.
Armed with cans of specially formulated orange paint, the foresters spend a good deal of their day craning their necks upward to look for the deep green crowns that indicate the trees have survived a years-long onslaught from spruce budworm and mistletoe.
Before they spray a ring of orange around a tree trunk, they look for trails of sawdust that are the telltale sign that Douglas fir beetles have already begun their attack that will eventually girdle and kill the tree.
Nate Barber, a forester on the Bitterroot National Forest, said every stand of trees comes with its own unique challenges for those making the decisions that will shape the future of the forest for generations to come.
Just off the edge of Willow Creek Road, Barber stands by a 10-foot-tall Douglas fir that had succumbed to continuous attacks by hungry hordes of spruce budworms that can defoliate a tree. Given enough time, those attacks can weaken a tree enough that it either dies outright or is killed by secondary assaults by Douglas fire beetles and mistletoe.
The smaller trees are the budworm's preferred diet. Once those are gone, they focus on the surrounding larger trees.
“When they use up all the food in the understory, they go upward into the less preferred larger trees,” he said.
Looking back into the crowns of the forest just off the road, it’s not hard to spot the trees that have been under attack. Some sport bare branches. Others look sickly.
“The trickiest part about marking trees is being able to decide how much defoliation is too much,” Barber said. “The crews are looking at tens of thousands of trees. No two places are alike.”
“Sometimes the easiest way to start is to look for the green tops,” he said. “They aren’t hard to spot.”
Some studies suggest that there may be a genetic resistance to spruce budworm in some Douglas fir. If that’s the case, preserving the trees that have survived the ongoing onslaught could help create a forest in the future that will be more resistant to the insect.
The marking crews working in the Sapphire Mountains last week were focused on what will be the third timber sale on the Bitterroot Forest’s Gold Butterfly Project on the Stevensville Ranger District.
The project encompasses about 9,500 acres along a 10-mile reach from St. Clair Creek to the south and Burnt Fork Creek on the north. It includes non-commercial thinning, prescribed fire as well as commercial logging on about 4,800 acres.
The project is the largest in recent memory on the Bitterroot Forest.
The first timber sale will go out to bid sometime in July or early August. Called the Deadhead Timber Sale — apparently after an elk skull that was located within its boundaries — the project looks to harvest about 1,400 acres and produce an estimated 12 million board feet (mbf) of timber.
A second smaller sale called Bear Trap will be offered this fall. That sale will commercially log about 600 acres and produce about 3.5 mbf.
A third sale — which is currently being marked — is called Burnt Gold. The largest of the trees, it’s expected to cover about 2,000 acres and provide between 10 to 12 mbf of timber.
Logging could last upwards of eight years. During log hauling operations, the Willow Creek Road on the national forest lands will be closed to the public on weekdays from midnight to 4 p.m. It will be open for public access on weekends, holidays and during periods when log trucks aren’t using it.
Stevensville District Ranger Steve Brown said the focus this summer will be on improving the road to bring up to standards for the expected log truck traffic.
In some places, the road runs along Willow Creek, which is a stream used by protected native bull trout.
“We have a bunch of road work that we need to do before we can start hauling logs,” Brown said. “Willow Creek is a critical habitat stream for bull trout. The way the road is built, it now adds a lot of sediment to the stream. We’ve agreed to bring that road up to better standards.”
That will include adding more gravel, right-sizing culverts and building new sediment traps to cut down on erosion. Brown said the Forest Service has also agreed to pay for dust abatement on the section of the dirt road through runs through private lands.
Much of the forest in the Gold Butterfly area has been heavily impacted by insects and disease. For now, there’s a window when there’s enough value in the trees that remain standing to help pay for the forest restoration work that’s set to begin as early as this fall.
“There are places where the trees have already tipped over,” Brown said. “We’re hoping that we’re in time to get a lot of this work done. There will be a time when this timber is no longer viable.”
Be the first to know
Get local news delivered to your inbox!