Field notes: Diversity in the Swan River Valley, Montana

Montana is famous for its irregular and ever-changing weather. Just weeks ago, we were bundled up in our warmest clothes and freezing in the cold rain. But only a few days ago the air was so warm that the icy water of Cold Creek near Condon, Montana, felt heavenly at the end of the day. 

Greta Hoffman

Editor's note: Over the past few weeks, field research interns Greta and Lily have been collecting information on forest conditions in the Swan River Valley of Western Montana. The Swan Valley is a productive and biologically diverse region home to grizzly bears, wolves and lynx, but has historically been intensively logged. Previously owned and managed by timber companies, over 35,000 acres were recently transferred to the National Forest through the Montana Legacy Project. Greta and Lily will be visiting sites that were harvested over the past 100 years to explore differences between 100, 75, 50, 25 and 10 year old clearcuts. Their data will help us understand the impact logging has on a variety of forest characteristics, and we will be able to investigate nature’s resilience to such human-caused disturbance.

By Lilly Clarke

Every ecosystem is essential to different species, and thus every ecosystem is important to the holistic health and survival of the diverse population that thrives here in Western Montana. After conducting Rapid Forest Assessment for a month, my perspective is consequently changing. The forest is no longer a single unit of trees but rather an area full of diverse, thriving ecosystems that allow and are necessary for diversity.

The Montana Legacy Project instituted a conservation easement on 310,000 acres within the Crown of the Continent, preserving these diverse landscapes and the health of the wild, beautiful land for which Montana is renowned. The Montana Legacy Project and Senator Max Baucus serve as my heroes, as they saved the land around my home in Swan River Valley and here in the Western Rockies from being subdivided and developed. I still wander through these forests and only see deer cooling in streams, bears wandering through fields and hear coyotes howling to the wide, open mountains. The conserved land provides both beauty for public access and habitat for threatened and endangered species, while also conserving trees for conservation based timber harvest.

Greta and I saw a variety of consequences when we worked in plots that were clearcut in from 1918 through 1996.  The most recent stands are overrun by lodegepole saplings and were clearly cut with only an economic standard in mind, while other areas are filled with rich diversity. Greta and I continually reference Aldo Leopold's quote from A Sand County Almanac, “It is fortunate, perhaps, that no matter how intently one studies the hundred little dramas of the woods and meadows, one can never learn all of the salient facts about any one of them."

The forest will always contain a beautiful mystery. Though we might never fully understand all of the forest's secrets, the Montana Legacy project has allowed us to conduct valuable research in an attempt to preserve wilderness' beauty, history, and allow it to thrive without human intervention. 

See photos from Lilly's journey:

Despite the intensive logging, the Swan Valley is well-used by grizzly bears. Movements of grizzly bears outfitted with a GPS collar are shown in yellow in this satellite map. Photo: High Country News

A major component of the Rapid Forest Assessment (RFA) is citizen science and community involvement. Last week, a crew from Montana Conservation Corps joined us for a few days and helped gather data on numerous plots. In the future, we hope to involve even more people in this process to spread the word about fire ecology and conservation. Photo: Greta Hoffman

One day while working, we came upon a huge boulder (maybe two stories high) in the middle of the forest. While looking for a way to reach the top, we found that someone had already built a ladder! Photo: Greta Hoffman

Wild onion abloom. This fragrant forb was sprinkled throughout the hillsides of the Swan River Valley in the middle of July. Photo: Greta Hoffman