Fire in Montana's Bob Marshall Wilderness: Our ecologist blogs from 'the Bob' - Part 1

Travis Belote

I am already hurting by the time we reach the sign along the trail that reads “Bob Marshall Wilderness” – after only about a quarter of a mile hike from the trailhead parking area in the Flathead National Forest here in Montana. My backpack might be the heaviest I’ve ever carried. I added eight days of food, field gear for forestry data collection, and several unnecessary books, and picked up my pack. The weight and the thought of having to carry this on my back for 15 miles to our base camp makes me groan, and then laugh out loud. This thing is ridiculously heavy! As we head out, I make sure that my bear spray is easily reachable and I pull off the safety several times to ensure I don’t fumble with it, in case I need it.

It doesn’t take long for my worries of grizzly bears to be replaced by the pain in my hips and feet. At the same time, it feels good to be out of the office, away from emails, cell phones, and meeting rooms. I’m happy to be moving and breathing in this wild landscape. After only a couple of miles, it is obvious that we’re not going to make it all the way to our destination; an open grassy terrace above the South Fork of the Flathead River 15 miles from where we started. Not today anyway. My collaborator, Dr. Andrew Larson, professor of forest ecology at the University of Montana and I planned this trip months ago, discussing routes and study sites by flying around on Google Earth. It is a lot easier to move around this landscape using a computer screen and scrolling mouse.

The Bob Marshall Wilderness is a one million acre landscape full of billion year old rocks, old growth forests of western larch and Douglas-fir, burned lodgepole pine, clear and cold streams full of native trout, elk, wolverines, and grizzly bears. ‘The Bob’ - as it is known to Montanans – is named after a founder of The Wilderness Society and is a crown jewel of wilderness areas. Making our way through this landscape, I’m reminded of what Lewis and Clark experienced during their trip through Montana just over 200 years ago. To me, this is one of the best reasons for wilderness: we are given the opportunity to experience the land as generations before us experienced it. Wilderness connects us to our cultural past and our natural heritage.

Being a research ecologist, I should definitely add that Wilderness also has scientific value.  It serves as a barometer for the rest of the environment – a reference to help us understand how nature works. This is why we’ve come to the Bob. We’ve come here to do science. With us are my Wilderness Society colleagues, Dr. Matt Dietz and Megan Birzell, Andrew’s wife and fire researcher, Alina Cansler, and University of Montana Researchers Cory Davis and Leo Brett. Our mission is to collect data on forested stands of western larch that burned in the big fire years of 2000 and 2003. Western larch is a beautiful tree of the Northern Rockies that needs fire so that small seedlings have plentiful light to grow. As an adult tree, the western larch has incredibly thick bark, and being a deciduous conifer (it loses its needles every year), it is able to tolerate moderate intensity fires and still live.

We’re here to use wilderness as a reference and guide for our work outside of wilderness, in lands more intensely managed by humans and checker boarded with old clearcuts and crisscrossed with roads. Those lands are in need of restoration but the question is; what are we restoring them to?  We’re hoping our trip into the Bob will shed some light on those questions.

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