Field notes: Lessons from Swan River Valley, Montana

The beautiful peaks of the Swan Range in the Bob Marshall Wilderness loom above one of our worksites. This tree stand represents the aftermath of this 1996 clearcut: extremely dense lodgepole pines of uniform age and size.

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 Greta Hoffman

These past few weeks collecting data on forest conditions in the Swan River Valley have been filled with awe, adventure and inspiration. By now we are well over a month into our forest research and our minds are analyzing, contemplating and observing nature in a completely different way.

Referencing field guides and spending time outside with researchers from The Wilderness Society has allowed me to learn more about the complexities of species that make up the forest ecosystem. No longer is the ground just covered in a mat of beautiful greens and browns, but hundreds of different shrubs, berries, mosses, grasses and sedges—each harboring its own unique qualities. Trees are no longer just trees, but complex organisms, each differing greatly by species and individual.

In addition to more fully observing the individual organisms and components of the wilderness, I am constantly learning more about nature’s big picture: how different groups can work together to conserve, benefit from and learn from it.  One of the major headliners for this task is the Montana Legacy Project. In December 2010, the final phase of the project was completed, allowing 310,000 acres of vital wild lands of the Crown of the Continent to be transferred from Plum Creek Timber Company to The Nature Conservancy and The Trust for Public Land.

For me, the awe-inspiring beauty of the Crown of the Continent is never taken for granted. Often I forget to see past the towering snow-covered peaks and clear mountain streams to appreciate all of the work that goes into conserving the places I love so dearly. Without the Montana Legacy Project and its many supporters and contributors, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to enjoy the smell of fresh alpine air as I’m working among the towering larch and ponderosa. I wouldn’t have a chance to access wilderness so vast and beautiful so close to home. And maybe the grizzlies, lynx, black bears, woodpeckers, elk, bull trout and various other species wouldn’t have a safe place to live and raise their young.

We are so very lucky to have these expanses of truly wild lands. I hope that we can step back and appreciate it thoroughly, while also looking to the future of conservation and making decisions to help keep the wild as it should be—wild.   

See photos from Greta's journey: 

The Swan Valley’s checker-boarded landscape from past logging activities. The mountain range to the left (west) is the Mission Mountains, and to the east right (east) are the Swan Mountains and the Bob Marshall Wilderness area. Map: Google Earth

Although they are tiny, these wild strawberries pack way more flavor and sweetness than the giant ones you can find at the supermarket. Sometimes, when the sun beats down on the forest floor, the fragrant scent of these little berries fills the air. Photo: Greta Hoffman

From a higher altitude, we could distinguish between the more recent clear-cuts, thinning treatments, older clear cuts, untreated areas and even the fire scar left by the Condon Mountain Fire less than one year ago. Photo: Greta Hoffman

These giant old growth pinus ponderosa are vital to forests in Western Montana. Through years of fire suppression, however, this shade-intolerant species has become dominated by other shade-tolerant species like Douglas Fir in many places. Historically, forests contained many old growth ponderosas where wildfire regularly burned through forest understories, keeping the pines free of competing vegetation and sustaining a diverse and productive forest floor of grasses and wildflowers. Photo: Greta Hoffman