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A Healthy Forest

A Healthy Forest

March 5, 2020

Wildfires can be devastating and are a major concern for Montanans. Listen to how this community is working and thinking together in order to reduce this risk. Collaboration not only yields a healthy forest, but also a healthy community.

Mixing engineers: Jim Ruberto and Monte Nickles
Photo: Zachary Patten
Producer and narrator: Zachary Patten


00:07 ZACHARY PATTEN: Wildfires can happen anywhere at any time, especially in periods of little rain and high winds. They can be caused by humans or lightning. They disrupt transportation, gas, power, and communications. They can ruin homes, cause injury or death to people and animals and cost the Federal government billions of dollars each year.

In the summer of 2017, Montana fires burned 1.4 million acres and that fire season is considered the most damaging since 1910. Wildfires are rare, unplanned, fires that burn in a natural area such as a forest, grassland, or prairie. Each of these natural areas can be found right here at Tippet Rise Art Center, which is part of both the Stillwater Valley watershed and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. In order to reduce the potential damage of the inevitable fire, Tippet Rise Ranch Manager, Ben Wynthein, is collaborating on a forestry project which will help reduce this risk, while at the same time, creating a more diverse environment for wildlife.

In this episode of the Tippet Rise Podcast, we’ll explore the importance of this community project and how its taking shape. It’s an example of people working and thinking together in order to care for this area and its future. Collaborating to successfully steward an environment not only promotes a healthy forest, but also a healthy community.

02:02 BEN WYNTHEIN: The main reason to even have this conversation is that we have to do what we do extremely professionally. My name is Ben Wythein. I’m the ranch manager here, it’s what I do, it’s what I live. It’s not just a job. I mean, living on the ranch it’s more than a job. I go to bed with it and wake up with it. Any tool, I don’t care what tool it is - it can be sheep, it can be chemicals, it can be a feller buncher, a chainsaw, a shovel, a guitar - any tool can be used for damage. They’ve given me some amazing tools to use. I have to use them very wisely because I could do a lot of damage really easily. Anybody else could, too. There has to be a lot of self-responsibility involved in that and keeping a goal very clearly in mind. We have a big responsibility ethically and morally to the land, to the community, to our neighbors, to each other, to the future, and probably even to the past. What we do with the land today affects what happens next year.

We have an area that’s densely wooded to the point that it’s a monoculture underneath it. It’s just pine needles. It used to be more of a savannah-type atmosphere. We had grass and trees mixed, which is what we’d like to have. We have the state section right next to us with pretty much the same scenario. So, what happens in that scenario is there’s actually little to no wildlife usable feed underneath the canopy. If a fire gets started, it’s a crowning fire that doesn’t burn in a natural state as it would’ve five hundred years ago when a fire came through every twenty years. It would be so hot that it would cook the area out. We have neighbors with houses that are very close to that. We have to do something to improve this and, actually, bringing it back to a more natural state is better for the wildlife, better for the livestock, better for the trees, better for the grass, because there’s more forage for the animals. It’s better for our neighbors because if we have a natural fire, a lightning strike or what not, we have something that is manageable and it’ll actually burn more in a natural state, not like what we see in some parts of the country where we have a fire explode, nobody can even handle it, and homes burn. So that’s our stewardship of our community. Would it be a “God Event” that a lightning struck, yes. Can we control that, no. But, what we can do is manage this in such a way that all these things are a more natural state and it’s better for people living in the community.

04:56 ZP: On a bright blue, January day Ben walked the forested area and showed examples of each phase of the project. Joining us was Ben’s one-year old Border Collie, Gal.

05:10 BW: Hey, Gal, come here. Come on, come here. Come here, you goose.

05:19 ZP: Stillwater County is home to just under 9,500 residents. It stretches over 1,800 square miles from pristine river valleys to snow-capped mountains over 12,000 feet. above sea level. Although the landscape is diverse, the residents find commonality in the responsible stewardship of the land they share.

05:39 BW: I think there’s a lot of common ground with people that have really different ideals. It’s how we achieve a result. A perfect example would be this logging project we’re doing. There is bad logging. People have ideals that they want to see a healthy forest. That’s a great ideal. There’s not a thing wrong with that - water quality, soil quality, wildlife habitat. What does that look like? We know what it looks like, how do we get there?

06:05 ZP: The Stillwater Valley Watershed Council has had success collaborating on other large community projects, including controlling the noxious weed issue, maintaining good water and range quality, and promoting the idea of stewardship as a mindset. But what is the Stillwater watershed?

06:23 LINDSEY CLARK: In technical terms, it’s the hydrologic boundary of the Stillwater River. So, all the tributaries that run into the Stillwater River, which runs into the Yellowstone, would be the boundary. So, it goes into Park County, Sweetgrass County, Fishtail Creek, Butcher Creek, major and minor tributaries that flow into the Stillwater or water that sheds off into the Stillwater River. That’s the hydrologic boundary. My name is Lindsey Clark, I’m the coordinator for the Stillwater Valley Watershed Council.

06:50 ZP: Lindsey works to establish and maintain good relationships with members of the community and other agencies. These natural events affect us all and the treatments and rehabilitations they prescribe for the landscape are for everyone’s benefit.

07:04 LC: If you can get a group of landowners, with the same goal in mind, to do these treatments in the fuel reduction, then, in the big scheme of things, if and when a fire does come through, it’s going to have a way bigger effect than if one guy, in the middle of a forest with three acres, decides to do a project.

07:22 ZP: Divided among four families, the State of Montana, and Tippet Rise, a total of one hundred and fifty acres were identified for the first phase of this treatment and rehabilitation process.

07:32 BW: For Tippet Rise and this area that we’re working on, I look at it and I go, how do I manage this area that you’re about to see? It’s so overgrown that if we have a fire of some kind, any kind, a lightning strike happens everyday in Montana in the summertime, if it’s in proximity to this forested area, the whole thing is going to be gone. And then, probably before it can regrow, we’re going to have a rain event, there’s going to be no ground cover, and what little bit of soil we have there that’s fertile enough to grow plants is going to erode. It’s going to be a compounding problem. Not just the fire and the fact that we don’t have live trees anymore, but now, we don’t have the ability to regrow them.

08:16 ZP: Although the Montana sky and landscape seem to extend forever, what Ben is describing and sees on a daily basis is that every part of this massive ecosystem is connected to everything else. As Ben alluded to earlier, that connection bridges the past, present, and future.

08:35 BW: Before we were here, fires would have burned through there every, who knows, eight, ten years, five years maybe, three years. It would maintain a more open vegetation community. There would be trees, but it would burn under the trees. A low-burn fire can be really good for the range land plants that aren’t intermingled with these trees. A high, hot-burn fire can actually cook the soil in such a way that it doesn’t have the nutrients that are required to regrow vegetation. We saw that happen, for example, in areas of Yellowstone National Park with the fires in the ‘80’s.

09:10 JEFF HERMANNS: Just in the last twenty-something years, we’ve had huge fires in this area. The Beartooths are kind of known for having these big stand-replacement fires. My name is Jeff Hermanns and I’m the Area Forester for the Southern Land Office with the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation with the State of Montana. There’s been a big effort for quite a few years trying to address, people understood how devastating these big wildfires can be. The cost and impact on the land and the impact on the ecosystems. When everybody first came to Red Lodge in the late 1880’s, if you go back and read the historic accounts, the Beartooths were black all the way from Red Lodge clear to Stillwater. That was all one big fire that had happened. So think about how big that fire was, right? I mean, it was probably a million acres back then.

09:58 ZP: It’s likely that we need to more clearly define what preserving nature means, as nature on its own is constantly changing, evolving, and growing.

10:07 JH: The growth of the forest is something that a lot of people just have a hard time really getting their heads wrapped around. The forests in Montana grow billions of what we call board feet every year. A board foot is a 1x1x12 inch board. Just in the state of Montana, alone, we’re only harvesting two hundred and something million board feet a year. If you think about it, nature is producing up to a couple of billion board feet every year that’s not getting consumed to a large extent. So think about just a tenyear period. We’re talking about potentially like twenty billion board feet of fuel. So, you can see how the buildup happens, especially over one hundred years.

10:45 BW: These areas where we’re going right now, the trees are so thick that there’s almost zero vegetation in spots underneath them. It’s just a pine needle carpet. We’re going to seed grass in these areas this spring and there’s going to be grass growing under and through the trees that are left. It’s not going to be like rows of trees, like a tree farm. I’ll show you today an area that we’ve finished and it actually looks more natural for our ecosystem than it did before we went in there and removed some of the trees.

So, going back to our previous conversation of how do we achieve the goal of a healthy forest, in some instances I would think that a complete hands off approach maybe is the wise thing. In some instances like we have here, it’s time to intervene and help it come back more into a natural state than allow a fire correction to cook it out for the next eighty years.

11:36 ZP: At the moment, it’s hard to imagine a fire moving through the area because everything is covered in deep snow. There’s a good reason why Ben chooses to do this project at this time of year.

11:46 BW: There’s a lot that goes into how and why and when we make these decisions. I didn’t want to do this project in the fall or summer, I wanted to do it when the ground was frozen hard because our surface disturbance is very low. I’m rather impressed with how little surface disturbance on the areas that they’ve completed there is.

12:06 ZP: The deep snow provides a thick pad on top of which three pieces of heavy equipment will operate.

12:11 BW: A feller buncher cuts it. That operator will make a stack and then the log skidder operator will transport the piles to a single location. Then, they come in with a de-limber and de-limb the logs within a certain spec; everything over five inches gets de-limbed and stacked. Then the slash will get burned probably next fall once it’s had a chance to dry, or next winter on snowy days. Then those areas will be raked in and seeded.

12:42 ZP: Although Tippet Rise is 12,000 acres, to truly understand a place is to experience it on foot and that’s exactly how Ben marks the perimeter of the forest area that needs thinning.

12:54 BW: Come on, Gal. Good girl.

13:00 ZP: Ben uses an old, but reliable, GPS device as well as brightly colored ribbons to mark and map the area.

13:06 BW: Ok, what this is doing it’s recording the area we’re going to do and it’s going to have it on a map, a topo map, when I’m done with the specific acres. We’re going to go down here and just start. There’s a certain amount of grade that we’re not going to go on. I was using this big tree as a starting point. We’re going to traverse the side of this hill and go around. I don’t want to get into real steep areas because of erosion. So, I’m cutting it off at anything steeper than 15%, we won’t be going on with equipment.

13:38 ZP: The steep angles of the terrain form a draw, or a natural drainage channel for rain and spring’s melting snow. As the draws converge, the large volume of run-off water picks up speed and easily reshapes the terrain. Ben’s experience has taught him that the issue with this type of area is not necessarily located where you might think.

14:01 BW: In a watershed scenario like this, the place to stop erosion isn’t down there, it’s up here. And so we really don’t need to go in there to stop erosion, we need good grass in here to stop the velocity as it’s going down the hill. It’s too late when you’re down there. People like to out-muscle water. You can’t, it’ll win every time. When it’s in a large area we slow the velocity down and give it a chance to go into the soil profile versus here, where it’s all coming together at one point. This is the issue, not that. So, we’re not even going to go down there but I want good grass right here. This is maybe a slow redundancy of walking it out but it’s the best way to do it. You can look at a topo-map on google earth, but you’re not going to get the same precision as just walking it out. (Whistles) Come here, Gal.

15:01 ZP: Ben and Gal continue on. The scene is reminiscent of a hand-painted children’s book. The evergreen limbs are heavy with the frosting of fresh snow. When we stop and listen, it’s quiet and calm. Even Gal’s steps have been softened by the sound-absorbing flakes.

15:31 BW: This, right here, is almost close to what I want. A little bit more open. It’s still a little dense. Here’s a little patch in the middle of the super thick stuff. It’s a little bit more than what we want everything to be like. There’s a little bit more grass. We’ll still pull a few out of here, but not too many. This little island we’re standing in right now is probably two hundred feet by two hundred feet. There’s thirty trees in here and out of that thirty, I would say we’ll probably pull twelve.

16:10 ZP: Ben knows there is good grass for wildlife underneath the heavy snow blanket. Here, the space between the trees is generous enough to view the strong trunks all the way to their tops.

16:23 BW: The other aspect I didn’t mention earlier is that it’s not just older trees. We want a variation. From young ones to old ones. Like, take those young ones there, maybe we’ll take three out of the four. The one that’s left would probably be either the one on the far left or the next one to the right. We’ll limb that tree at the bottom eight to ten feet. Then, when a fire comes through here, it should burn under it, not into it. If a fire comes in here right now - like look down there where it’s really thick, it gets into that canopy and we have ladder fuel right down in the dirt. It climbs that tree and it just (whoosh) through everything and all of this is just gone. I’d actually pull this tree because it’s not as nice as the one behind you. That one there is a really nice tree. But this one, forking at the ground like that, was damaged when it was young, pretty badly. That’s going to split at some point just from a wind load, whereas that one won’t. That’s a really nice tree there, we’ll keep that one. The bark will probably protect the tree enough, unless it’s just a crazy hot fire. If it hits these dry needles in the summer, for instance, and it climbs that tree, it’ll kill it. But burning by at the ground level, it’ll survive a fire event.

17:39 ZP: Whereas I am seeing the white and green forest that surrounds me, Ben is imagining ocean-like, red-orange, waves of fire. Their flame crests breaking six to eight feet high and crashing into the wooden trunks.

18:21 BW: Come here, girl. Good girl, happy day, huh? Happy day! Yea, good dog, yea. One thing I didn’t mention, in this project even within the area that we’re working on, we’re going to leave a couple of thick spots within that area and call it wildlife islands. The idea is to give them a spot within that open area. On really bad weather days, they can get out of the weather. This area we’re at right here, traditionally, has been an elk habitat, especially with the kind of weather like we’re having today. But, I’ve actually seen the elk use in this area of the ranch taper off and I’m not one hundred percent sure why that is. I think part of it is that elk like it somewhat open for predator reasons. They can see what’s going on around them, but they also need cover in super bad storms and what not. I almost feel like this area has become too thick because they don’t feel safe here like they used to. There’s really not much grass, look around. There’s a few little clumps here and there, but I think they’re going to start using it more when we open it back up a little bit.

19:35 ZP: Recognizing nature’s patterns and understanding how all of this works together is partly what Ben means when he says, “living on the ranch is a lifestyle.”

19:44 BW: You don’t get that information from anything but living in it. No computer program will tell you this is where they want to be. It’s the south slope, there’s water close, we also have this ridge hooked around like this and it creates a wind block. Then, go out to the north and hit these open ridges that blow off by the wind and they don’t have to expend as much energy getting through it to eat. This is a prime location to have for a wintering ground available to them.

20:15 ZP: As we continue, the fragility of the soil is made evident to us and the massive root structure of a mighty tree that once was comes into focus.

20:25 BW: There’s one that just flat blew over! That shows you what the soil is like here. That tree wasn’t deep rooted because it couldn’t. That’s how precious this soil is in this area. There’s only a little bit of it. What you see is what you get, you know, that’s it. (Whistles) Come on, Gal, switching directions.

20:45 ZP: Whether she knows it or not, Gal leads us to a more diversified forested area, which shows examples of the project’s positive results so far.

20:54 BW: There’s an example on the other side of this fence is the state section. There’s an example of a slash pile. The logs have been decked up on the ridge. This area that you see in front of us, Zack, was as thick or thicker than what we just walked through. That’s what our place is going to look more like. You can see right there that they left a little thicket on that knob. That’s for a wildlife park island and, if a fire is burning in here, it’s a lot more manageable than what we just walked through. Come here, Gal (whistles) come on. There you are. She’s loving this trip!

21:32 ZP: It is more open and welcoming underneath the healthy variety of trees. The excess fuel for a major fire has been removed. It’s now easy to picture elk bedding here in the winter, foreshadowing the plentiful overlay of bright green grass in spring. Throughout the years, Ben’s connection to the land has taught him that this is responsible stewardship.

21:56 BW: This is a long-term stewardship endeavor to balance this out, despite whether we’re here or not, which is what matters. What he’s doing here when he’s done, is not the end of the project. The end of the project will be three years from now when the grasses are fully established, the noxious weeds are not fully established. And if the trees are still alive if we have a fire event in the next ten years, which we will. You can’t help that fact. It’s part of the environment where we live.

22:23 ZP: Although there are sometimes great distances between neighbors, living here has a way of bringing people together, whether it’s through projects like these, or simply the shared beauty of the Stillwater Valley.

22:34 LC: My husband and I ranch and so our lives are so busy with kids, cattle, horses, and day to day things that you lose touch with how beautiful the place is. If I’m out, I just stop, look, and I have to think about how lucky we are to be able to raise our family here; to meet wonderful people, to live in a community that cares as much about you as a person, as an organization, as you do about them. And we get to live this every day.

23:02 BW: Stewardship isn’t just for your benefit and mine in our lifetime. I mean, good stewards are looking down the road, way out. Land managers are here for just a blip in time. But, how we interpret things does reverberate in succeeding generations. I’m probably not getting everything perfectly right, but I can read and understand, lessons learned, and move forward. I hope succeeding generations do the same thing. I just love going for a walk in the woods on days like this. It’s just so beautiful.