COLUMBIA FALLS, Mont. - Surrounded by mountain forests that stretch 80 miles north to the Canadian border and 120 miles east to the Great Plains, this town grew from the seeds of logging. And in contrast to neighboring communities like Whitefish, which now depend on tourism generated by Glacier National Park, Columbia Falls remains a timber town. Plum Creek Timber Co., with three local mills, is still the largest employer in this town of 5,000.
But even here, times have changed. Almost
every timber sale proposed on the Flathead National Forest is
challenged by conservationists or by new homeowners who would
rather look at trees than stumps. Because lawsuits and
environmental studies cost the Forest Service a lot of money, the
Flathead National Forest has all but scrapped its small
timber-sales program over the past decade.
discomfits local loggers like Jack Jay and Floyd Quiram. Jay and
Quiram are well known in this community for their good work and
knowledge of the land. They have both hired out with local timber
companies, private landowners and the state. But as small timber
sales have dwindled, their livelihood has
A few years ago, Jay went looking for
some kind of substitute for the small-sales program. "I was
concerned about the industry for our kids," he
The pair began meeting with timber
advocates and academics about coaxing environmentalists to sit down
"We went one-on-one or two-on-two over
cups of coffee, working out the basics," says Jay. "We started with
low-key meetings, gradually increasing in size."
What they discovered was simple: Loggers wanted
work, while environmentalists wanted healthy forests. Jay and
Quiram eventually pulled together a diverse group under the banner
of the Flathead Forestry Project, and came up with a formula that
satisfied both parties: Pay loggers to restore sick
In the five years since the early talks
over coffee, their idea has grown into a West-wide experiment that
may change the way the Forest Service does
Flathead Forestry Project's first experiment was the 112-acre Cedar
Flats project on the Flathead forest north of town. Fire hadn't
been allowed to naturally burn in the area since 1910. Without
small, ground-level fires to clear the undergrowth, small trees
grew thickly together, shading out wildlife forage and increasing
the risk of large fires that burn all the way through the forest
With $120,000 in grant money, and support
from the local forest staff, the Flathead Forestry Project designed
a project to restore the forest to a patchwork of old growth and
younger trees. A panel of three Forest Service staffers and four
Forestry Project members reviewed proposals from nine contractors
without seeing the price tags, and chose a handful of
"There was everything from a one-man
show to a horse logger to a company with the most advanced
equipment," said Gary Dahlgren, acting district ranger at Tally
Lake, who was one of those reviewing the projects. "Any one of the
systems was capable of doing the job."
committee then looked at what each operation would charge to do the
job, and chose two companies. The first was selective "eco-logger"
Bob Love (HCN, 11/24/97). The second was a father-daughter team
called Lightning Excavation.
Loggers finished the
73-acre thinning projects last winter, and where trees were once
crowded together, pines now stand 10 to 12 feet apart, creating a
park-like setting. The space will allow the trees to grow taller
and thicker, and give undergrowth room to grow, providing food for
elk, deer and, perhaps, grizzly bears and
The Forestry Project paid the contractors
$97,200 to do the job, and the Forest Service sold the timber for
The Flathead Forestry Project
didn't stop at Cedar Flats. In 1995, the group had drafted a bill
that would set up a national stewardship contract program. The bill
made little headway in Congress that year, but was reborn in 1998
with some changes and passed as a rider attached to an
appropriations bill. It allows the Forest Service to enter into 23
contracts across the West.
streamside reclamation, recreation and wildlife habitat will all be
melded into one contract," explains Perry Brown, dean of the School
of Forestry at the University of Montana.
proposal from the Custer National Forest calls for prescribed
burning, noxious-weed control and road obliteration on 32,300
acres. Another, on the Beaverhead/
Forest, focuses on watershed restoration, stream channel
stabilization and the fencing of aspen stands to keep out livestock
and wildlife that eat the young trees.
Cedar Flats project, some logging will occur on each site, but the
logger gets a paycheck based on the forest that remains, not the
logs that are taken out. Money the Forest Service makes from
selling the logs returns to the local forest's budget to help pay
for the project, or others down the
Not everyone likes the Flathead Forestry
Project model. Some environmentalists who have followed the group
fear that, like the Quincy Library Group in Northern California,
stewardship contracts put land that is owned by every U.S. taxpayer
in the hands of small local groups (HCN,
The Forest Service should be focusing
on more pressing issues, such as tearing out unneeded roads,
according to Keith Hammer of the Swan View
"The Forest Service has put an
incredible amount of time into this project. It's a grand
distraction," he says, adding, "The Forest Service doesn't need any
help in twisting around the term restoration to mean we need to cut
Bob Schrenk, who oversees
stewardship proposals for Region 1, says projects designed to
camouflage timber sales will be weeded out.
will allow us to do quite a bit of work we haven't been able to do
before because of budget restraints," he says. "These projects
won't ever replace service or timber contracts, but they give us a
new tool to accomplish needed work in the forests."
The original 23 stewardship contracts will
continue through 2000, but the experiment's future is unknown. Last
fall, Congress cut funding for the project from an appropriations
bill, says Carol Daly with the Flathead Economic Policy Center, who
helped raise grant money for the Cedar Flats project. She hopes to
convince Congress to fund more contracts next year.
The wheels of change are moving too slowly for
loggers like Jack Jay in Columbia Falls. He says he has given up
any hope that his three children will ever make a living from
logging. He encourages them to go to college and find more stable
"My own measure of success for the
project will be when I see a viable small-sale program once again,"
he says, "with trees being cut on a regular basis."
Mark Matthews writes
from Hot Springs, Montana.
can contact ...
* Carol Daly at the Flathead
Economic Policy Center, 406/892-8155;
Schrenk with Region 1, 406/329-3604;
Hammer, Swan View Coalition, 406/755-1379.