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(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Healthy phloem, the nutrient-conducting layer under the bark, feeds young beetles who ultimately choke it off. Monday, August 1, 2011.
Montana's trees aren't going down without a fight
Losing battle? Crew spray trees with insecticide, thin forests and tack repellent pouches on trunks, but it isn't enough to beat the beetles on the Bitterroot.
First Published May 21 2012 02:19 pm • Last Updated May 21 2012 02:26 pm

Editor's Note: This story originally appeared in The Salt Lake Tribune on October 8, 2011.

Darby, Mont. • It's war on the Bitterroot.

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Chemical war. Biological war. Scorched earth.

Having watched mountain pine beetles blitz the Continental Divide forests east of here for the past decade, leaving practically no mature pines living near the state's capital, western Montanans are primed for a fight.

"In Helena and Butte, they'll have a whole generation that won't know what [Montana] looked like," said Nancy Sturdevant, a U.S. Forest Service entomologist who is nursing the Big Sky state's wilds through the epidemic.

It's an extreme example of a phenomenon that has consumed more than 40 million acres of the West's forests since 1997. Researchers say warming winters have aided the beetles' survival beyond historic outbreak numbers. Average winter lows in Montana's forested ranges have climbed 4 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit in the past half-century.

But there's also widespread fear that the government worsened the mess by letting the woods grow overcrowded.

Now, with Montana's battle shifted to the Bitterroot National Forest, federal authorities aren't holding fire. The people of Missoula - a nearby college town usually inclined to let nature do its thing - aren't giving them much choice after watching the eastern carnage.

A 2000 fire that scorched hillsides near Darby was a further call to action, Sturdevant believes, because it showed Montanans that flames would take what beetles didn't. Loaded with fuels, the forest burned intensely along Highway 93; nothing has grown back in the seared soil.

Former Mayor Daniel Kemmis, an author and public-lands consultant known for illuminating his city's environmental ethos, said Missoulians are ready to support tree thinning. Foresters have rebuilt trust since the clear-cutting 1980s timber wars, he said, and the urgency is obvious.

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"You really can't drive or fly around and see the extent of beetle kill and not be worried," Kemmis said.

When Bitterroot foresters hold public meetings proposing the next steps, residents urge them to do more. So crews are hosing Carbaryl, a chemical insecticide, up and down tree trunks in accessible recreation zones. They're tacking anti-beetle pheromone pouches on prized shade trees in campgrounds. Most of all, they're hacking trees before the beetles can.

Stripping 40 percent of the ponderosa pines on the overcrowded slopes of these purple mountains gives the rest a fighting chance, Sturdevant said. The trees that are left have more resources to stay healthy.

"We greatly reduce [beetle kill] but can't eliminate it," Sturdevant said. "We're not God."

Leave the trees growing thick, though, and the beetles show no mercy.

"You wouldn't have a stand left to start with," Sturdevant said, showing off a recently thinned hillside of hearty ponderosas in a drainage called Swift Creek. "Here, you're leaving genetically superior trees."


Logging's return • Farther up the mountain, where the government is thinning more trees, a treaded tractor, called a "masticator," climbed a steep slope, swinging a spinning grinder and chewing trees to the ground.

The operator guided the long grinder arm first down the side, stripping away parts beetles might find appealing even in a toppled tree. Then he raised it for the final pass and mowed the remaining wood into chips in seconds.

"It's neat to be back," said logging contractor Dyrk Krueger, a third-generation Montana woodsman whose dad once logged this area, "but it's scary to look at what's happened on the Bitterroot."

Now there's not much commercial logging to go around, and most of his time is spent restoring forest health on private lands. The Darby lumber mill is closed, as is the Smurfit-Stone paperboard factory that handled100 truckloads a day at Frenchtown until last year. Trucking to Northwest mills is too costly.

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