MCA VIGNETTE: Collaboration in Seeley Lake marks the way of the future for public forests.

In Gordy Sanders’ office, thick packets of paper pile up on every available surface, just as piles of lumber, sawdust and uncut logs cover the grounds of the Pyramid Mountain Lumber mill outside. Though inside the office you can’t hear it, the mill is running full tilt. As resource manager for the company it’s Sanders’ job to keep it that way, and that means keeping logs coming out of Montana’s forests.


He does this by keeping his eye on changing climates. To Sanders, that’s not just the kind of climate that deals with temperature and precipitation, but also the political climate, where keeping lumber coming from the woods means collaboration with diverse interest groups.


When Sanders thinks of global climate change impacting Montana’s forests he thinks of a time he was hunting sheep north of Yellowstone. While walking a high and bare ridge he came across a petrified redwood stump, the moisture-loving giant that today is found exclusively in northern California. Change is constant, Sanders says, but in forests it’s also slow.


Unlike wildlife species that could shift northward and upward within a few generations of warmer temperatures, “trees take a little longer to actually move,” Sanders says. In the meantime he has more immediate concerns than changing species on his mind, like what he considers the excessive tree competition in overstocked forests across western Montana.


“If you actively manage these forests, reduce the competition, they become more resilient in terms of fending off insects, disease and wildfire,” Sanders says. He is a firm believer in removing some trees to let others thrive, as opposed to forcing the kind of competition that leaves all the individuals weaker and the forest more vulnerable as a whole.


Active management on as big a scale as possible, he says, is the forestry of the future.


One beneficiary of that strategy would obviously be Pyramid Mountain Lumber and its 140 employees, a family-owned fixture in Seeley Lake since 1949. “If there’s no active management then we’re done,” Sanders says, because a mill needs logs and that means saws running in the woods. The business’s continuity relies on forests staying productive in the future, and that means staying alert to climate change and the potential for increased tree loss, through wildfires and beetle outbreaks, that it could bring.


In 2013, Sanders was part of a group called the Montana Forest Restoration Committee, comprised of foresters and researchers from federal agencies, conservation organizations and lumber companies. The group released a set of guiding principles to manage Montana’s national forest lands, which included 13 management principles regarding climate change.


“I think at this stage in the game, given climate change predictions but also the very uncertainty of those predictions, you're wise to continually actively manage, which buys you time,” Sanders says.


The implication is that while we don’t have the answers to how forests could change, we do know some things. Wildfires are increasing in frequency and severity, for example. For Sanders, that means removing more fuel from the forests is important.


That’s potentially good news for the mill, which for years has had to draw its wood load from further and further distances around the state, though Sanders says the forests right around Seeley are full to bursting with trees that could be removed.


To further that goal he has for decades found himself seated at collaborative efforts like the Montana Forest Restoration Committee. For the last ten years, Sanders and Pyramid Mountain Lumber have been leaders on a project called the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project, which has brought logs to the mill from forest restoration projects around Seeley Lake and nearby Ovando, in the Blackfoot valley.


Sanders says the project began out of dissatisfaction with the U.S. Forest Service’s forest management plan for the area. While the principles of the plan itself were sound, progress on it was too slow. “If it’s not implemented it doesn’t mean anything,” Sanders says.


Along with the lumber company’s Chief Operating Officer, Loren Rose, Sanders met with a local congressman, and together they decided to create a collaborative working group that would move the forest plan forward by creating widespread public support.


“The first thing we need to do is convene a group of influential folks that people listen to, not necessarily elected officials,” Sanders recalled saying at the time.


The group that eventually formed included the mill, loggers, hunters, backcountry outfitters, conservationists and even snowmobile groups. Forest restoration, the timber industry’s component of the project, represents just one leg of what Sanders calls a three-legged stool. The other two legs are recreation (hence the snowmobilers) and conservation, in particular the designation of 83,000 acres of public land as wilderness.


The timber leg of the stool has been the most successful. In 2009, under the guidance of U.S. Senator Jon Tester, funding for forest restoration and fuels reduction projects started to come through in the form of collaborative planning programs, most notably a program called the Southwestern Crown Collaborative.


But the larger Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project, including the wilderness designations and considerations for recreation groups, has failed to advance into law. Sanders says that Pyramid Mountain Lumber intends to see the rest through to the end, despite achieving their own goals. That’s the point of a collaborative approach to public lands.


“Once you develop these relationships, it never goes back,” Sanders says. No one wants to see the antagonistic relationships between conservationists and the timber industry of the past return. Collaboration, Sanders believes, “is the way of the future on federal land, no question about that.”


Collaboration becomes ever more relevant when managing in the face of climate change.


“The greatest benefit I see is getting beyond little thinking, where you’re talking about large landscape level,” Sanders says. That means working on a large landscape level, which Sanders emphasizes does not mean a uniform treatment, but instead promoting variability in tree species, age and size across the forest.


“That’s where we need to go long term, is be thinking tens of thousands of acres rather than individual little projects,” he says, “and that’s absolutely true when you start talking about climate change, because the climate doesn't change in this hundred-acre spot.”


For an example of the kind of thinning project he’s proud of, Sanders shows off the Gerard Grove, just a few miles down the road from the mill. There, old growth larch trees stand well spaced with grassy ground between them. On a hot July day, a moose browsed through a low-lying bog on the grove’s edge, while turkeys strutted between the larch trees.

Sanders says the mill got about two truckloads of logs off each acre, one truckload of logs big enough for the saw, and one load of smaller logs used for fence posts, rails and pulp.


One of the larches in Gerard Grove is believed to be over 1,000 years old, the biggest western larch on record. Scars around its base show that it may have survived as many as 40 fires. Mature larches have thick bark to ward off intense heat and their limbs start high on the trunk, above the reach of flames burning across the forest floor.


But the fires this larch survived likely burned through the grove every 20 years or so, keeping the underbrush clear. In forests that haven’t been treated, a century of fire suppression has let fuel build up, providing a pathway for flames to reach the forest crown. When combined with longer, hotter and drier summers, even mature larches could succumb to the fires of the future.


Sanders however, and those advocating more fuels reductions and thinning projects, think they can mitigate the worst impacts of climate change on western forests.


“As a professional forester, is it something that I worry about and lay awake at night?” Sanders asks of climate change. “No. Because what we’ll need to do is do what we can, actively manage and work at it over time.”