December 29, 2020 Kalispell, MT– As it was for other industries and private citizens, 2020 was a year like no other for the Flathead National Forest. Despite significant changes in the ways the Forest conducted business due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Forest still accomplished significant annual goals set in late 2019.
The Forest welcomed new Forest Supervisor Kurt Steele in February and will say goodbye to longtime Natural Resources and Planning Staff Officer Rob Carlin as he retires at the end of 2020.
“It was a privilege to provide this diversity of services to the public this year,” said Flathead National Forest Supervisor Kurt Steele. “From offering a place for people to get outdoors and enjoy themselves, to sustaining our local mills for all the people who rely on our wood products industry for their livelihood or the products that our sustainable supply of wood provides, to working across boundaries in fire preparedness and response, it is important to all of us on the Forest that we continue to serve our community in the ways that matter most.”
Here are a few highlights from a year where the Forest experienced shifting ways of doing business and high customer service demand.
People sought outdoor recreation in substantial numbers this year. From river use to campground occupancy, Forest staff saw people in places and in numbers not observed in years past. Flathead Valley Campgrounds, the concessionaire that manages 12 of the Forest’s fee campgrounds, had a busy summer with high occupancy during their operating season. Reservation and first come first serve campsites were often full. As a result, the Forest saw an increase in dispersed recreation and camping in undeveloped sites forest wide. Rental cabin use and occupancy was high for all 16 cabins and lookouts, with an overall average of 89% occupancy. Crews developed new and more frequent cleaning protocols for restrooms and cabin rentals, stepped up food storage and bear aware education for out of state visitors, and responded to an uptick in graffiti, dumping, and other vandalism at high-use recreation sites.
Despite the initial challenges associated with navigating COVID-19 early in the summer, outfitter-guides that provide commercial visitor services in the Forest had a busy season. A substantial portion of the fees generated from outfitter, guide, and concessionaire permits stay with the Forest and are reinvested to support recreation improvements and ongoing maintenance. Trail crews maintained 993 miles of the Forest’s 2,260 miles of hiking, biking, horseback riding and motorized trails. Trail work was accomplished by both Forest Service trail crews and many partner organizations. Multiple wind-storm events impacted trail access and some developed recreation sites into the summer season, particularly in the Swan Lake area.
River rangers patrolled over 850 river miles of the Flathead River, totaling 82 patrol days. The patrol miles increased by 30% over 2019. River rangers monitor use levels, provide safety and resource education for the public, and lend a hand to boaters in need.
The Forest began planning with partners to implement new trailhead and trail construction activities as part of the Taylor Hellroaring and Crystal Cedar projects on the Tally Lake Ranger District and Hungry Horse/Glacier View Ranger Districts. Work on the ground will begin over the next several years.
Phase one of the Hellroaring Basin project was completed within the permit boundary of Whitefish Mountain Resort. New ski runs, expanded glading areas, and a new lift line corridor for Chair 8 were all finalized.
The Forest also approved a set of short-term recreation permits for different guided activities in both the summer and winter months. The permits differ from longer-term outfitter, guide, and concessionaire authorizations in that the permittee must reapply annually.
Forest Management Projects
This year the Forest made substantial headway with the Mid-Swan Landscape Restoration and Wildland Urban Interface project with the release of the draft environmental impact statement in August. The Forest also began or completed planning for other forest management projects with objectives to improve forest health, reduce forest fuels adjacent to communities, offer new recreation amenities, and provide forest products for the local economy. Those included the Hellroaring Basin project on Big Mountain, the Crystal Cedar project near Columbia Falls, the Salish Good project near Whitefish, the Stovepipe project in the northwest Flathead Valley, the Bug Creek project in the Crane Mountain area, the Lake Five project near West Glacier, the March Madness salvage project near Swan Lake, and the Frozen Moose project in the North Fork. Staff also continued work on the Comprehensive River Management Plan for the Three Forks of the Flathead Wild and Scenic River and expect to update the public about progress on that plan later in 2021.
Timber and Forest Management
In fiscal year 2020, the Flathead National Forest’s commercial timber program managed vegetation on 3,679 acres, resulting in 47.3 million board feet of timber sold. The total sale value was 5.7 million dollars. Favorable market conditions and the local availability of mills contributed to high sale values. The Forest uses those funds for reforestation efforts, other restoration projects including aquatic habitat, and returns the remainder to the Treasury Department to support other national priorities. This year, the sales were primarily comprised of Douglas-fir and lodgepole pine, species abundant in the region.
The Forest also manages the Bigfork Tree Improvement Area, which is an orchard used to produce seed for reforestation efforts. The trees at the seed orchard have been grown from native tree cones harvested from a variety of locations across the region. The cones were taken from a cross-section of trees that showed exceptional health in the natural environment. The Bigfork Tree Improvement Area produced 346 bushels of ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir cones for Northern Region reforestation projects. That is the equivalent of over 700,000 tree seedlings or enough to replant 3,000 acres of forest.
Seed from the Bigfork Tree Improvement Area, along with seed collected in the woods, was used to plant 1,295 acres in the Forest. That is approximately 280,000 trees planted this year. Planted trees consisted entirely of native species, primarily western larch, ponderosa pine, western white pine, and whitebark pine. A substantial amount of planting was funded by partners, including the Arbor Day Foundation, American Forests, National Forest Foundation, and One Tree Planted. Planting season coincided with stay at home orders for COVID-19. The Forest took extraordinary measures to provide for employee and contractor safety while still completing the planned planting within the seasonal planting window. The employees were considered essential workers. The Forest also completed precommercial thinning to improve stand conditions on approximately 250 acres and certified that 2,500 acres of forest within the 2015 Bear and Trail Creek Fire areas were naturally regenerating.
Last year, the Forest began a new partnership with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) under the Good Neighbor Authority (GNA), an authorization in the 2018 Farm Bill. The Forest used GNA this year to expand capacity for implementing timber projects including the GNA Weed Lake forest management project near Swan Lake and the GNA Taylor Hellroaring forest management project in the wildland urban interface near Whitefish, Montana. The Forest was honored to receive the DNRC Forestry Division Partnership award in recognition of this successful partnership with the State of Montana, and would like to emphasize that this partnership is truly reciprocal, allowing both agencies to accomplish far more quality work on the ground on behalf of the public.
The Forest maintained 476 miles of National Forest System roads and constructed seven miles of new system road in 2020, supporting both timber and recreation opportunities. The Forest also repaired 45 damaged gates and berms installed in areas where roads are not open to motorized travel or are only open seasonally.
The mountains of the Flathead National Forest are the headwaters for many watersheds that deliver clean water to our communities and provide important habitat for multiple species. The aquatics program treated invasive aquatics species across 400 lake acres and 2.5 miles of stream habitat including Holland Lake, Red Butte Creek, and Smith Creek. Staff inventoried approximately 300 miles of closed road and monitored 155 crossings on roads to identify potential chronic sources of sediment and other habitat impacts within streams occupied by bull trout and other native aquatic species.
This year the heritage program completed a new cultural resources survey of approximately 6,711 acres to support larger forest management projects, in addition to other smaller survey areas. Crews recorded seven new archaeological resources and monitored 38 others to update or re-record their condition.
Forest wildlife staff supported timber and fuels targets and other efforts, working to ensure that habitats would continue to support nearly 300 species of amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals, including the threatened grizzly bear and Canada lynx. State and non-profit organizations partnered with the Forest to help fund and staff work to educate campers about recreating in bear country, raise awareness about common loon habitat, improve deer and elk winter range, and monitor raptor migration at a HawkWatch site on the edge of the Jewel Basin. Wildlife staff were also active on numerous interagency committees and collaborated on research and monitoring efforts for Canada lynx, grizzly bears, wolverines, elk, snowshoe hares, amphibians, and many other species.
The Forest’s botany and weed management program surveyed nearly 5,000 acres of future forest project areas for rare plants and invasive species inventories. Crews documented 1,760 weed infestations. In total, 1,344 acres of forest were treated for noxious weeds, including those reported by neighboring landowners, weeds in North Fork elk habitat, and infestations in the Bob Marshall Wilderness with Montana Conservation Corps partners. For the 12th year, in partnership with Working Dogs for Conservation, the Forest prevented dyer’s woad from seeding. The Forest also served as a test site for Canada thistle rust, a biocontrol agent used to combat invasive Canada thistle. Crews planted 60 pounds of native seed to rehabilitate fire impacted areas. Multiple state and nonprofit partners assisted with weed control efforts across the Forest.
Wildfire and Fuels Management
Northwest Montana experienced a moderate wildfire year. The Forest had 20 human-caused fires that spread 2.5 acres, primarily due to carelessness with campfires, cigarettes, and other fire causing activities. It also had 18 lightning-caused fires totaling 5,425 acres burned. During the pandemic, firefighting response came with increased risk as firefighters not only contended with the risks of wildfire but also the need to manage for COVID-19 outbreaks. The Forest used a ‘module as one’ concept to reduce virus spread, keeping small crews together and reducing interaction between crews, in addition to other tactics on the fire line.
Crews balanced their time between firefighting in Montana with national assignments due to high demand firefighting resources elsewhere. Fire personnel mobilized for fire assignments in January to Australia and Tennessee. They served in high priority areas throughout the summer. Some were still on assignment into November and December. Many served up to a month at a time away from home.
Fuels management, including prescribed burning, was put on pause in the spring due to COVID-19 concerns and the impact smoke could have on the community. Fall prescribed fire was limited due to firefighting resources needed on large fires across the west. Crews accomplished some pile burning in the late fall. However, many fire personnel remained on assignment supporting national priorities and were unable to complete some planned prescribed fire projects locally. Crews also responded to significant wind events across the Forest that caused single tree and large swaths of blowdown. In the Swan Lake area, the significant blowdown is being addressed with projects to remove the excessive accumulation of timber and provide additional relief from future extreme fire events. Approximately 7,500 hazardous fuels acres were treated on the Forest in 2020.
Flathead Avalanche Center
The 2019-20 winter marked the third season of unprecedented growth for the Flathead Avalanche Center. The Center issued 243 avalanche forecasts and condition reports, alerting the public to dangerous backcountry conditions in the Whitefish, Swan, and Flathead Ranges, and Glacier National Park, nearly double the total from three winters ago. The products are built in part on submitted observations from winter recreationists which have increased several-fold in recent seasons. The growth is a sign of public engagement in Avalanche Center products, interest that is also reflected in increasing visits to its website and social media accounts.
As in other sectors, education numbers dipped by 30% from the previous winter, in large part because of cancellations due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Staff and volunteers installed a new weather station in the Flathead Range zone, filling in a huge data gap. The effort was supported by donations to Friends of the Flathead Avalanche Center.
Overall, weak layers developed early in the season at upper elevations. A remarkable seven-week period of sustained snowfall marked the middle of the season. The combination resulted in several natural cycles of very large, destructive avalanches. The Center recorded eight near-misses or accidents over the winter, none of which resulted in full burials or serious injuries. Overall, 23 avalanche fatalities were reported in 2020 nationwide, two of them in Montana.
People can learn more about the Center’s forecasting, outreach, and education efforts, along with the snowpack history and incidents by reading its annual report on the Center’s website.
Education, Private, and Non-Profit Partnerships
In the winter of 2020, the Forest successfully hosted 27 school groups for in-person field trips in partnership with Whitefish Mountain Resort and the Friends of the Flathead Avalanche Center. The Summit Nature Center was open on weekends and holidays through the winter, serving over 1,200 visitors. Though the season ended a week early due to COVID-19, field trips in January and February and the first two weeks of March were successful. This summer, education rangers at the Summit Nature Center took programs outdoors, offering over 60 formal nature discovery walks, and ‘table and trail’ talks with locals and the visiting public. Though programs looked different from previous years, rangers and the public commented that it was valuable to offer different kinds of services, some of which may be continued into future years.
Forest partners continued to sustain much of the work that the public enjoys in the Forest. In the spring, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation won the Forest Service Chief’s top Enduring Service award. Multiple trail groups formed or grew to take on different recreation and trail maintenance projects across the Flathead Valley. Friends of the Flathead Avalanche Center expanded its education offerings to serve middle school students in partnership with the Forest. The Glacier Institute, which holds its field camp at Big Creek, welcomed a new executive director and launched an ambitious online education platform, in addition to field camp. The Flathead Resource Advisory Committee awarded funds to many community selected projects across the Forest including weed spraying, lake and stream monitoring, dust abatement in the Ashley Lake and North Fork areas, signage, education events, and vault toilets. The amount awarded in 2020 was over $400,000. The Flathead Resource Advisory Committee is a requirement of the Secure Rural Schools Act and is comprised of a community board that selects forest projects for funding proposed primarily by partner nonprofits.
This year, the Forest hosted a number of interns and fellows from local high schools, colleges, conservation corps, and other organizations. In August, the Forest brought them together for a day of outdoor presentations to share the diverse array of work they accomplished, and to learn from experts about future careers in land management.
Upcoming 2021 projects and priorities
In 2021, the Forest expects high visitation and demand for recreation and will continue to provide the best customer service and support possible. It will implement projects that received funding from the Great American Outdoors Act. Active forest management will continue to reduce fuel loads, increase forest health, provide a sustainable supply of forest products to the American people, and carefully steward natural and cultural resources in the Crown of the Continent ecosystem.
If fuel and weather conditions allow, the Forest will implement several landscape level prescribed burns including the Whitefish Municipal Watershed, Belton, Middle Fork, Red Whale and Lindy prescribed burn projects, with more details released to the public in advance of any activity. For the last two years, multiple projects have not been able to proceed due to unfavorable conditions.
The Forest also expects to continue or finalize several forest management projects in the coming year including Stovepipe, Lake Five, Frozen Moose, Bug Creek, and Mid-Swan. The projects will balance the needs for forest products, reduction of forest fuels, and improving forest health in the face of disease and climate stressors. Other new projects will also be released for public input as well. The Forest anticipates strengthening the use of Good Neighbor Authority with the state of Montana to accomplish some of its forest management goals.
The Forest will continue to build on successful partnerships and programs to further improve forest conditions and recreation opportunities.
A selection of photos is available on the USFS Norther Region Flickr site. Captions are attached to this email.