Red Hamilton thinks his neighbors are going to sleep a little easier when the heat from next year’s summer sun settles down over the East Fork of the Bitterroot, and the brush underfoot turns crisp.
By then — if everything goes according to plan — loggers will have finished thinning about 3,200 acres of dense forest just above the communities of Springer Memorial and Bonanza.
It’s a project that’s been a long time coming.
“We’ve always considered all of that as a fire hazard,” Hamilton said. “There is lots and lots of fuel up there and we’ve seen how fast it can burn.”
He’s been around long enough to know how nervous folks can get when there’s smoke in the air.
Hamilton built his first cabin in 1968 in the Springer Memorial community that was set aside decades ago for veterans. When he retired as Missoula police chief in 1998, he settled full time into the unique community that allows veterans to lease a quarter-acre lot for $25 a year.
After the fires of 2000 burned hundreds of thousands of acres in the Bitterroot, he and his neighbors went to work the next spring to thin the forest inside the memorial. They removed 28 tons per acre over the next few years, and followed that by cutting more than 300 cords of firewood from standing dead lodgepole.
“Springer is pretty thin compared to what it used to be,” he said.
But Hamilton said they always worried about the condition of the national forest lands on the hillside above their fence line.
The Bitterroot Community Wildfire Protection Plan identified the area — with its estimated 255 homes — as a “high priority” for fuels reduction within the wildland urban interface. In 2007, Springer residents joined with their neighbors in the Bonanza subdivision to present a petition to the Bitterroot Forest requesting a fuel reduction project in the area.
Recently Darby District Ranger Eric Winthers held a community meeting to let people know the project called Meadow Vapor was about to get underway.
“They were pretty happy to hear that,” Winthers said. “It’s been a long process that ended getting delayed for a few years for different reasons.”
The project was split into two different sales.
The Little Springer portion of the project focused on removing the dead lodgepole along the bottom the valley. It was purchased by a Corvallis mill. Much of the wood that was harvested ended up for sale as firewood that is sold locally in the Bitterroot Valley.
Some of that wood will also be ground into chips and used to heat the Darby school over the next three years.
“That’s the cool thing about these smaller sales,” said Ryan Hughes, the Bitterroot Forest’s timber sale administrator. “We get a lot of local interest, the products end up being used locally, and the work that’s accomplished is done mostly by local people.”
As Corvallis’ R&S Logging puts the finishing touches on the 800,000-board-foot Little Springer project, the first crew of Idaho Forest Group started logging the larger 7.5 million-board-foot Meadow Vapor project about three weeks ago.
On Wednesday, a four-man crew was busy using a skyline system to bring downed trees up a steep hillside to the roadside where another machine was busy knocking off branches, cutting the trees to length and stacking the prepared wood for the two self-loading logging trucks that were making the long haul to a mill in St. Regis.
The plan calls for focusing this summer and fall’s work on the south side of the East Fork road. This winter, when the snow either gets deep enough or the temperatures drop to the point the ground freezes solid, logging crews will gear up again to work on the project’s north side.
The project focuses on removing diseased and smaller trees and leaving the old-growth ponderosa pine and Douglas fir behind.
“We have a lot of fir in here that has been impacted by spruce budworm and mistletoe,” Hughes said. “By taking those trees out, it will improve the resilience of the trees that are left behind.”
The foresters are also protecting the Douglas fir trees that appear to be resilient to the insects and disease.
“It’s easy enough to pick out the trees that have been impacted by spruce budworm,” Hughes said. “Their tops are like skeletons.”
Spruce budworms do their damage by defoliating a tree. If the infestation is large enough and lasts for several years, the insects can kill a tree.
But some Douglas fir aren’t affected. With their perfect Christmas tree-like pointed tops, they stand out.
“Genetically, some trees might be more prone to avoid the impacts of spruce budworm,” Hughes said. “We want to protect those trees in hopes those genetics will be preserved.”
The project also includes $125,000 in road improvements that will help keep sediment from reaching nearby streams that are home for bull trout and westslope cutthroats. It also allows for the construction of two new OHV connector trails and the decommissioning of other routes.
Bitterroot National Forest Forester Jon Garlitz said the Idaho Forest Group is currently hauling about four loads a day from the Meadow Vapor, but that should increase dramatically over the next few weeks when another three skyline crews come on board.
By the time the sale is complete, Garlitz said about 1,600 log trucks will have hauled trees to several different location, with the bulk of it headed to St. Regis.
Jack Jenkins of Darby was happy for the work.
As he sat on edge of the road, he worked to sharpen his long-bladed chainsaw while waiting for the next load of trees to come up the hill. Once they got there, it would be his job to unhook the choker cables and then get out the way.
After years of practice, Jenkins ran up and down the logs with ease while unsnapping the chokers and hurrying to get out the way. In between loads, he used his chainsaw to square off the ends.
“It’s good to see the logging industry back here in the Bitterroot,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for probably about 30 years wherever I can find work. It’s nice to be close to home again.”