The Bitterroot Valley was an amazing place to grow up. Back in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, there were not a lot of people around. Most of the roads were dirt roads and a lot of times, your closest neighbor was miles away.
Back then, neighbors helped neighbors watch over the farms, do their gardening or canning, or churning the cream to make homemade butter. Most mothers stayed home milking and feeding the cows, feeding the chickens, pigs, rabbit’s horses, and doing the chores, while most fathers went to work in the mountains or on their farms.
Most families were able to afford vacations at least once a year. Summers were filled with swimming, camping, fishing, running creeks, hay fields to run through, and horses to ride. Winters were filled with snow, sledding, hunting, skiing and snowmobiling wherever we wanted to go.
Back then, grandfathers, uncles and fathers made a living by working in the mountains. They cut down dead trees, loaded them on trucks, and hauled them away. They cleaned up the debris from the mess they had made and they planted new trees. That is how most families survived in the Bitterroot Valley, but the loggers did not do all of this just for a paycheck, they did it for their love of the mountains in the Bitterroot Valley.
Timber dollars not only supported families back then, timber dollars supported the schools and education. A percentage of the logging industry was poured back into the school system, allowing for the schools to pay teachers and allowing for up keep on the schools in Montana.
Forest fires were few and far between. The loggers kept our forests clean and free of brush, and the fuels that cause forest fires, just as we do around our own homes and property. We did not have forest fires year after year, after year. Summers were not filled with endless weeks or months of smoke.
If there ever was a forest fire, the loggers stopped logging and began fighting the forest fires. Entire communities came together and worked together until the fire was out. After the fire was out, the loggers went back to work, cleaning up the devastation from the forest fire. When all was said and done, new trees were planted. Some of those new trees stand tall today, but they are dying from the beetles. Some of the trees that were planted have been burned once again. They stand on the side of a mountain, all black and ugly from the devastation of fire.
While change is OK, a family becoming homeless, jobless, and penniless is not OK. Our forests are dying and being killed by the pine beetles and that is not OK. Our community could be doing something about all of this but most people do not know what to do. Those who do know what to do, do not have the finances to do it. Then, there are those who say, “let it burn”… well, I, for one, don’t think so.
It is like saying, “my home is on fire, let it burn.” When my forest is on fire, (the forest that I grew up in), I say, “Put the fire out.” That is how we should protect our environment, our wildlife, our streams, our homes, our air, our tourism, our businesses, and our animals. I know I will not invite family or friends to visit the Bitterroot Valley in August or September, because we are not able to enjoy our lakes, campgrounds, or even our own backyards with all the smoke.
We have the best firefighters, EMTs and law enforcement personnel, whom work 24/7 to protect our community from the fires. We can not thank them enough for what they do.
However, with all the recent fires over the past 12 years, and endless summers filled with smoke, it is time for a major change. We need to put people back to work. We need to employ families. We need to clean up our forests, removing all the beetle killed trees, dead trees, and burnt trees. We need to remove all the brush and pine needles and re-plant our dying forests before there is nothing left but brown forests.
It’s like Smokey Bear says, “Only you can prevent forest fires.” Think about that… Yes, we can prevent forest fires… and that is what we should be doing.
Everyone needs to encourage our elected leaders, (county commissioners), to rethink the current policies on how to manage our forests, and provide us with a natural resource plan that works for our community, because something is definitely wrong.
April Palin Olechnicki