Innovative approach maximizes benefits of timber sale

Story by Kyle Johnson, Forester, Missoula Field Office

A current timber sale on the Missoula Field Office (MiFO) is demonstrating the power of a collaborative approach to forest management in some pretty powerful ways!

Students at a Log Landing
A class from The University of Montana with BLM Forester
Kyle Johnson (center, red vest) at a log landing on the
Gnome Knob Timber Sale, February 2019. Photo courtesy
of UM Forestry Professor Beth Dodson

The conversation started in the summer of 2017 when a representative of the local timber industry noticed a fuels reduction (chainsaw thinning and hand piling) project being conducted near the Blackfoot River which is also within the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) on MiFO public lands. This individual, whose interest is in material which is too small for dimensional lumber milling, was very positive about the work the BLM was doing and wanted to talk about mechanically harvesting similar stands to utilize the cut trees for paper chips while still meeting the objectives of fuels reduction.

Based on this and many subsequent conversations, Forestry and Fuels staff at the MiFO decided to design a project which would marry fuels reduction in the WUI with mechanical treatment of small diameter stands and the harvest of merchantable timber to make an economically viable project. The restoration treatment took the form of an “ICO” treatment, meaning that Individuals, Clumps and Openings would be featured with the stated objective of mimicking the mosaic patterns commonly found in dry forest types prior to disruption of the natural fire regime.

The harvest design was made even more progressive by abandoning the traditional timber marking process in favor of a “Designation by Prescription” (DxP) method of designating trees to cut.  With the DxP method, a harvest prescription is provided to the timber harvester who cuts the trees to meet a measureable objective while working closely with the BLM Foresters. Benefits of the DxP method are the time savings of not marking every tree prior to harvest, and a more collaborative, dialog-based relationship with the timber harvester; as well as more flexibility to adapt and adjust during the actual harvesting process.

timber sale area before the harvest
Gnome Knob Timber Sale pre-harvest
condition: a dense stand of small diameter
ponderosa pine. Photo by Kyle Johnson

During project development, members of the MiFO Forestry and Fuels staff reached out to private landowners in the project area, many of whom have houses directly adjacent to the proposed treatment area. We met one on one with these individuals to answer questions about timber harvesting, the project design and our objectives, alleviating many of their concerns though open, consistent communication.

By working together with members of the local timber industry, and implementing some new ideas to increase efficiency (i.e. DxP and small diameter tree utilization), the MiFO Forestry and Fuels staff were able to develop a project which was very attractive to the local timber industry and potential purchasers. The project became known as the Gnome Knob Timber Sale and sold in September 2018 for roughly $86,000.  A pretty impressive return for a project which included many stands that traditionally would not have been considered to have merchantable timber.

Timber Sale Area after the harvest
Gnome Knob Timber Sale post-harvest,
with harvest prescription met. The removed
trees were utilized for dimensional lumber
and paper chip production.
Photo by Kyle Johnson

The project is nearly 370 acres of harvest and fuels reduction entirely within the WUI on sites which were originally slated for non-commercial treatment which would have cost $200 - $700 per acre to treat, had it not become a timber sale.

Harvesting commenced in January 2019 and is going exceedingly well. Through frequent site visits and maintaining an open dialog with the logger, the harvest prescription is being met and our objectives achieved. The purchaser is supplying traditional sawlogs for dimensional lumber to a local saw mill, and small diameter logs to the paper chip manufacturer, supporting local jobs and economies.

The reception from local homeowners has also been very positive, with several individuals approaching the MiFO staff to express their excitement about the project, and inquire about doing work on their land adjacent to the project.

Since harvesting began, the MiFO has hosted groups from the University of Montana, W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation as well as The Nature Conservancy to discuss the lessons learned from this project and develop plans for future projects using this as a template. Harvesting and fuels reduction treatments associated with this contract are expected to continue through the summer of 2019, with a prescribed burn scheduled to follow to further reduce hazardous fuels in the area.

Through this and other projects, the MiFO is excited to protect people, communities, wildlife habitat and watersheds by actively managing lands to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire.