HAMILTON - Did you know old growth trees that can live over four times a human lifespan can be found in Montana’s wilderness?
The old trees around today have survived from the many that were cut down a century ago.
“In the early 1900s, Anaconda Mining Company came through and logged the old growth on the Bitterroot Front," President of Friends of the Bitterroot Jim Miller explained. "A large part of the old growth forest in the Bitterroot Mountains is gone.”
These trees are allies to humans and animals alike and people want to protect them.
“Old growth also captures, or stores, a lot of carbon, enormous amounts of carbon, they’re really a great hedge against the changing climate that we have. They also are critical habitat for many birds and animals," Miller says.
If you hike into the Bitterroot National Forest, you can get up close and personal with these trees whose layered bark tells stories of centuries past.
Now, the Bitterroot National Forest is proposing updates to their Forest Management Plan which dates back to 1987.
This will bring Montana’s old growth in line with other states in the northwest.
The definition in the current Forest Plan was based on the best information the Forest had for describing old growth attributes when the plan was developed in the 1980s (based on Franklin et al. (1981)). However, over time several limitation of the plan definition have been identified. The criteria were developed for the Douglas-fir forest types in the Cascade Mountains, which is not representative of conditions or the fire return intervals found on the Bitterroot National Forest... Additionally, the current Forest Plan definition does not address the variability in old growth conditions across the Forest's different ecological settings... In the early 1990s, the Northern Region developed locally applicable ecological descriptions for old growth forests by specific forest type and biophysical settings in the Northern Rocky Mountains described in Green et al. (1992), (errata corrected 2011)... The proposed amendment would align the Bitterroot Plan with the definition used in other Norther Region land management plans... Green et al. (1992) uses measurable and statistically quantifiable key characteristics that define old growth forest (basal area, trees per acre, diameter at breast height, and age) to provide means to monitor existing amounts and trends of old growth forest over time.
“With the current forest plan, all old growth has to be 40 acres or larger. [A stand near Lake Como] happens to be 14 acres. This necessarily doesn’t classify as old growth.”
Silviculturist with the forest, Cheri Hartless added the new plan would put newer data and standards to use which would include these trees just outside of Lake Como.
“Old growth acres range anywhere from 5 up to 200 plus acres and so you really can have a diverse mix of old growth," Hartless says. "If we were to just use the 40-acre metric that is required in the forest plan then obviously we would have a lot less.”
The new plan would account for old growth at higher elevations. These trees are centuries old but do not usually get classified due to their small acreage.
“So, there’s four times as much old growth with what we’re proposing than what we have right now," Hartless told MTN News. "This is the reason why we need to make this change.”
Being among the old trees at Lost Horse, Jim Miller, shared his distaste for the change because old growth trees could be cut with more forest management.
“We need to protect these trees.” Miller also wants to protect trees that could be old growth in the future.
Miller explained that the new approach could allow the Forest Service to cut areas of old growth down to a specific number. Miller said he's not against logging or paper products but he is against logging that is harmful to the environment.
“In their logging projects, they can cut down to 8 old growth trees per acre," Miller said.
However, Hartless said the number 8 is only a minimum and that the Forest Service does not want to over-harvest old growth.
She said they have had commercial timber sales from logging, or management, activities and these areas still remained classified as old growth.
“It’s just one, one metric, it’s not an absolute as in the only defining characteristic. It’s a minimum screening.”
In addition to acreage, they will also use characteristics like height, age, and diameter.
Silviculturists define and classify old growth at the stand level and never as individual trees. For a given old growth forest type, there must be a minimum number of live trees per acre meeting age and diameter at breast height (DBH) thresholds, and a minimum basal area (square feet per acre of live trees greater than or equal to 5 inches DBH) in order to be considered old growth... Because of the great variation in old growth stand structures, no set of numbers can be relied upon to correctly classify every stand. The minimum criteria are meant to be used as a screening device to select stands that may be suitable for old growth, and the associated characteristics are meant to be used as a guideline to evaluate initially selected stands... The minimum criteria are used to determine if a stand is potentially old growth. Where these values are clearly exceeded, a stand will usually be identified and managed as old growth. In most cases the marking guides for the project mandate that more trees are retained in the larger tree size classes.
For the health of the trees, Hartless stated they need space to grow, “The density has to remain fairly open.”
So, they do cut some trees, but they say it’s normally the smaller ones. “Most of the trees that came out were very small diameter,” Hartless added.
The Bitterroot National Forest told MTN that the purpose of the plan amendment is to guide management to promote more and retain existing old growth in the forest, not reduce it.