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Forestry in the Crown

Natural Area, Forest or Range
Trees grow big in the region's western valleys. Tom Parker works with loggers and conservationists in the Swan Valley to maintain working forests and wildlife habitat. – Courtesy Swan Ecosystem Center

First a source for railroad ties in the late 1800s, and then for construction lumber, the forests on the wetter, west side of the Continental Divide are equally valued today for recreation, wildlife habitat, and clean waters. Modern foresters strive for sustainability but now must fight increasing wildfires and proliferation of mountain pine beetles as climate change warms and dries woodlands.

The lumber industry in the Rocky Mountains is suffering severe market and environmental stress. The collapse of the U.S. housing sector deprives producers of their biggest market. At the same time, the ravages of the mountain pine beetle, which thrives in the warming climate, forces lumber companies to hurry the salvage of dead trees, despite the declining market.

On the U.S. side of the region, timber companies are further pinched by a tight supply of logs. Corporate industrial lands across more than 1.2 million acres in western Montana were harshly overcut in the 1980s and 1990s, often in square-mile clearcuts. While young trees have regenerated most of these cut-over sites, loggers working for these companies face a period of decades before logging levels can again reach biological capacity while maintaining water quality and wildlife habitat. Meanwhile, logging levels have dropped sharply over the past 15 years on public lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service due to a combination of factors, including overcutting on adjacent private lands in key watersheds, environmental controversies and lawsuits, and major reductions in agency budgets.

From a long-term perspective, however, the greatest social, environmental and economic issues related to forestry in the Crown of the Continent is the wholesale conversion of working forests for real estate development. Many of these lower-elevation lands in the forested foothills and valleys also are critical for wildlife habitat, water quality, and traditional public access. Within the region, Plum Creek in Montana and Tembec in British Columbia have accelerated their programs to sell forests to real estate developers. Unfortunately, the growing rate of rural residential development in the forested "wildland-urban interface" exacerbates growing wildfire danger fueled by global warming. Such developments make firefighting more dangerous, complex and expensive, and the costs are typically born by local and national taxpayers. If you're thinking of moving to this region, please live in or near established towns.

Fortunately, conservationists, loggers, sportsmen and public land agencies are joining together in places like the Swan Valley and Whitefish watershed to develop innovative strategies to maintain working forests. A key part of this strategy will include maintaining viable sawmills to profitably process local timber.

A great way to learn about forestry issues and associated environmental and social values is to attend the Family Forestry Expo in Columbia Falls, Montana, on lands managed as an educational forest by F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber: