Let the DNRC Cut Some Trees

By Beacon Staff

Last summer, I met Montana Department of Natural Resources (DNRC) Kalispell Unit forester Brent Kallander at the Whitefish rifle range. He was inventorying the ground where the range is located, the Spencer block of state forest southwest of Whitefish.

Job No. 1 for DNRC is managing state trust lands for long-term revenues to support education, including cutting trees, and because DNRC does that job well, I “filed and forgot” – at least until I read Dan Testa’s article reporting that some Whitefish folks had “concerns” about the harvest proposal.

The Friends of Spencer Mountain (FOSM) group held a public meeting with DNRC, which I missed – hey, I was grouting tile. Once you start, you stop only when done.

However, Mr. Kallander was kind enough to bring me up to speed, both on Spencer’s facts and on FOSM’s issues.

FOSM is asking DNRC to be transparent with its plan, which I support. But its members are also asking DNRC to place recreation at the top of the priority list, with conservation and fuels reduction next. They also expressed concern over visual impacts from logging.

The last big harvest in the Spencer block was in 1968, just over 40 years ago. There was a small harvest on the far east edge in 2005, which makes sense because the access is through the developing Whitefish Hills subdivision. Kallander told me he inventoried roughly 30 million feet of timber on about 2,460 acres. Twelve-thousand average board feet per acre is a comfortable number for a Montana working forest being managed for the long term.

Frankly, the Spencer block is in pretty good shape. The deer are thick, I’ve seen bears on the range several times, and I swear I saw a fisher once … that or the biggest mink ever.

But given our recent incendiary summers, and the fact the Spencer block is upwind of Whitefish, I can’t help but notice the crowns (tree tops) are closed or closing in many areas, meaning a fire in one tree will ignite the next. Furthermore, last winter’s early, wet snow threw down a lot of younger trees, especially on the north end. Until they fall down completely, they will make perfect ground fuel for carrying fire into the crowns.

So, DNRC has many good reasons to do some management. Raise education money, prevent the insane costs of fighting a big fire near town, put folks to work, and, in the bargain, use some of the timber sale proceeds to fix the helter-skelter mess at the Twin Bridges entry, and build the planned north-south trail specified in the “Whitefish Neighborhood Plan.”

Now, I understand firsthand the Spencer tract’s importance as a recreation resource for Whitefish and Flathead residents. And yes, hunting and hiking on state ground officially requires a Fish, Wildlife and Parks license. Licenses cost $8 to $10 depending on where you live and what you’re doing, but enforcement is on the “honor system,” that is, there isn’t any – and there’s dang little revenue.

Bottom line is, to raise education money, DNRC must either sell or lease land, or sell the stuff that grows on it, grass or trees. In 2003, when our late, lamented boom was its craziest, DNRC proposed selling at least parts of the Spencer block. A good plan would have kept the bulk of Spencer Mountain’s environmental and recreation amenities available to all, while fulfilling the education trust mandate. But DNRC ran into FOSM’s political hot saw. A potential showcase turned into a circus.

I guess Friends of Spencer Mountain feel they have a proprietary, “special” interest in the Spencer block because they “saved” it and wrote a so-called neighborhood plan. But the money to implement the plan won’t fall from the sky. If DNRC can’t sell the dirt, what’s left? Wood.

Never mind the neighborhood plan was agreed to at a cost of millions not only to the state trust, but to about 900,000 other Montanans. Wasn’t that enough? You betcha it was, so if Montana DNRC now wants to cut some trees, by gosh, let them.