Field notes: On the ground in Montana's Crown of the Continent

Montana's Southwestern Crown wildland is a rich tapestry of lower elevation forests and communities in the Blackfoot, Clearwater and Swan river valleys.

howardh, flickr

For the next couple months, we'll be bringing you updates from Montana, where Wilderness Society interns Lily Clarke and Greta Hoffman are conducting collaborative research with the University of Montana on the effects of fire and restoration on forest ecosystems for ecologist Travis Belote. Stay tuned for future blog posts and photo updates, as Lily and Greta make their way from Swan Valley to the Bob Marshall Wilderness. 

By Travis Belote

When you spend a lot of time in the woods, you start to notice things that can too easily go unnoticed. The smell of trees, the distinct call of birds and insects, the shifting angle of shadows throughout the day and across the seasons, the gradual darkening of shades of green from spring to late summer and subtle signs of creatures great and small living in the woods. These characteristics of the forest – and countless others – can tell us a lot about a place.    

As a research ecologist, one of my roles is to make sure those characteristics get noticed, measured and shared to people making decisions about how forests are used or protected. The past three and a half years, we have been working to bring ecological perspectives to restoring forests in the Crown of the Continent region of Montana.

Forests in the Northern Rocky Mountains historically depended on fire. Decades of fire suppression and historical logging practices changed the character of these forests. Through broad analyses covering entire forests, we used computer models to identify places most in need of restoration, where some logging and prescribed fire attempt to restore conditions in the forest.

Computer models do not replace time in the woods as a way of understanding forests.

It is astonishing how much we can learn about nature from computer models, but computer models do not replace time in the woods as a way of understanding forests. This is where our interns Lily and Greta come in.

Meet Lily and Greta:

Lily Clarke and Greta Hoffman will be spending this summer traversing the southwestern Crown of the Continent region in Montana collecting data describing the characteristics of the forest --and they will be blogging about their work in the woods. 

Photo: Lily Clarke (left) and Greta Hoffman out in the field in Montana. Travis Belote

Measuring the number of trees, their sizes and species tells us how fire might burn through the forest. Estimating how much “hiding cover” exists gives us some indication of whether the forest is a good habitat for wildlife species like lynx and elk. Lily and Greta will be taking measurements of these and several other pieces of information that will ultimately tell us a story about the forest.

The project, a collaboration with University of Montana, is part of an assessment of forest conditions in some of the wildest places in the lower 48 states, and ultimately helps us understand the best way to conserve and restore Montana’s forests.

While the project was originally conceived as a collaborative scientific endeavor, it quickly became apparent that Lily and Greta will be uniquely positioned to be the eyes and ears of The Wilderness Society: the boots on the ground of much of our work.

Photo: Big Blackfoot River Valley, usfwsmtnprairie, flickr

Their days, weeks and months spent in the woods everyday will provide them with an intimacy with places that few of us ever really experience. Lily and Greta will be traveling across the Swan Valley, a remote valley of rich forests and grizzly bears, and the site of a recent transfer of land from a private timber company to public conservation ownership. They will spend time traveling around Seeley Lake and up the Big Blackfoot River Valley, the iconic river that inspired the book and movie A River Runs Through It. Lily and Greta will also hike deep into the Bob Marshall Wilderness to study the influence of fire on forests composed of ancient western larch trees.

In addition, Lily and Greta will periodically work with youth conservation groups to train them how to conduct forest monitoring.

Lily and Greta will be writing short blogs and sharing photos throughout their exciting journeys, and I hope readers will live vicariously through their stories. So follow along, as Lily and Greta traverse the wilderness and tell the stories of these remarkable forests that make our land a special place. 

Read the first of the Montana dispatches from Greta and Lily

Field notes from Montana: Meet Lily

Field notes from Montana: Meet Greta