The invisible threat of COVID-19 added a new set of challenges to the complexities of forest management last year, and if you spent time in the woods in Northwest Montana in 2020, chances are you set foot in the 2.4 million-acre sylvan sea that encompasses the Flathead National Forest.
The Flathead National Forest’s sprawling footprint includes the Whitefish Range, the Swan Range and the Mission Mountains, and agency officials are engaged in a constant juggling act to balance priorities like recreation, timber, fire, resource conservation and education.
Although the challenges of forest management during a pandemic may not be obvious at first blush, they proved significant, particularly as the number of people who sought outdoor amenities as their primary means of recreation surged.
“As it was for other industries and private citizens, 2020 was a year like no other for the Flathead National Forest,” according to Forest Supervisor Kurt Steele, who assumed the new top position last February, replacing Chip Weber, who retired as supervisor after a 30-year career with the agency. “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.”
From river use to campground occupancy, forest officials reported an unprecedented number of people recreating in places and in numbers that have not been observed in years past. Flathead Valley Campgrounds, the concessionaire that manages 12 of the forest’s fee campgrounds, reported a busy summer with high occupancy throughout their operating season, while both 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, presenting issues with unattended campfires at the height of wildfire season.
Rental cabin use and occupancy was high for all 16 cabins and lookouts available to rent, with an overall average of 89% occupancy, according to Steele. In response to the public health crisis, 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 also reported a busy season. A substantial portion of the fees generated from outfitter, guide, and concessionaire permits remain within the forest system, and are reinvested to support recreation improvements and ongoing maintenance.
According to Steele, trail crews performed maintenance work on 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,” he said, adding that 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, with the patrol miles increasing by 30% over 2019, Steele said. River rangers monitor use levels, provide safety and resource education for the public, and lend a hand to boaters in need. Forest 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.
The forest also 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, and skiers exploring the basin will notice new ski runs, expanded glading areas, and a new lift line corridor for Chair 8.
Forest Management Projects
The forest made substantial headway with the Mid-Swan Landscape Restoration and Wildland Urban Interface project in 2020, with the release of its draft environmental impact statement in August. Officials 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.
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 amounted to $5.7 million dollars, with favorable market conditions and the local availability of mills contributing 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 consisted primarily of Douglas-fir and lodgepole pine, species abundant in the region.
“It was a privilege to provide this diversity of services to the public this year,” said 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.”