MARTIN CITY – Against the dark clouds of a passing storm, the vibrant orange needles of the Larix occidentalis, or the western larch, offer a final burst of autumn color on a cool November day.
Tucked into the northwest corner of the Flathead National Forest is a 7,500-acre enclave known as the Coram Experimental Forest. It is one of 80 such preserves in the U.S. Forest Service system that are set aside to do research on specific types of ecosystems – in the case of Coram, one dominated by larch. The first was established in 1908, and they range in size from a few dozen to a few thousand acres. Coram was established in 1933 and this year celebrated its 80th anniversary.
But unlike its storied neighbor to the north, Glacier National Park, which celebrated a century in 2010, Coram’s 80th birthday passed with little fanfare. For Elaine Kennedy Sutherland, a research biologist and scientist-in-charge at Coram’s (but based in Missoula), the best way to celebrate the forest’s anniversary is to expand on the job it’s already done.
“We want to expand on the research done on the experimental forest because a great deal of great work has been done here over the years,” she said.
Every year, scientists with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Forest Service, or partnering universities, study the western larch. When scientific work first began in the 1950s (although it was established in 1933, the Depression and World War II delayed study efforts), the primary goal was to find the best means to regrow trees for logging. Kennedy Sutherland said those goals have since expanded to include the study of how wildfire and wildlife affect the landscape. For example, scientists found one section of forest was heavily damaged by black bears that were tearing off the bark and licking the sap and chewing on the underlying sugary and nutritious cambium.
Someone who knows the forest best is Dr. Raymond Shearer, who worked on the forest from 1957 until 2003. After graduating from Utah State University, Shearer got a job based in Missoula and working at Coram. He said much of the work is observational science – seeing how the trees and forest react to different conditions.
“It wasn’t until we got up and running that any research had been done on the western larch,” he said. “There were a lot of unanswered questions.”
Because it’s important to let the forest work in a natural and untouched habitat, there are only a few roads and trails inside. However, venturing into the woods near Martin City, especially in autumn when the larch needles are changing, is a worthy expedition.
Heading into the woods on one of the nature trails, visitors will walk on a carpet of needles and shouldn’t be surprised if they come raining down during a stiff breeze. The trails take visitors past interpretive signs that explain the work that has been done and the differences between a healthy forest and an unhealthy one.
Perhaps the best part of the Coram Experimental Forest is how it’s often overlooked. Hikers are unlikely to encounter a lot of people walking down the trail or driving down the road. However, when standing on a bluff and looking across a small canyon dotted with orange and green trees, it’s easy to realize why it’s Shearer’s “favorite forest.”
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