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Crew regenerates Mill Creek with 218,000 trees

 

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Along a roaring Mill Creek in June, Genaro Bazan and a handful other men stalked the banks holding hoedads in search of good ground to plant En g e lma n n s p r u c e a n d Douglas fir saplings.

They carried the tiny trees in bags slung over their shoulders, and plugged them into small holes dug with their sharp steel tools, which were basically tractor discs bolted to ax handles.

"We get use to this," Bazan said about the grueling work, which had his crew hopscotching up and down Mill Creek Road the entire week.

"It's hard work, but we're the ones to do it."

Bazan works for Pacific Oasis, an Oregon company working with the U.S. Forest Service to replant forests.

Before arriving in Montana, the crew had been in South Dakota, where it had planted 600,000 trees, Bazan said.

Their charge along Mill Creek, which feeds into the Yellowstone River out of the Absaroka Mountains, was more modest but still impressive: 218,000 spruce pines, Douglas firs, stream bank willows, Geyer's willows, Sitka alders and water birches are set to be planted in the drainage in the two weeks they are on with the Gallatin.

"You have to go one tree at a time — clear a space and plant a tree — and it has to be done a couple hundred thousand times," forester Stan Cook reminded visitors on June 24. "Every time I marvel that we actually planted that many trees."

Reforestation work like this used to occur in the wake of timber harvests, but as logging on National Forest land has dropped off, more attention has gone toward rehabilitating areas ravaged by fire, which Mill Creek has been twice in the last decade.

Next year, Cook said, 20 percent more trees are scheduled to be planted, and he suspects all of them will be in burn areas.

"We've just now evolved to plant where we would have walked away," Cook said.

"Plant where it just hasn't recovered."

Land managers have come to recognize the vital role wildfires play on landscapes like the Mill Creek drainage, which has seen three major fires in the past two decades.

Some species, like lodgepole pines, need fire to reseed.

Burned trees seep rejuvenating nitrogen into the ground.

There are even species of birds like the black-backed woodpecker that live almost exclusively in burned areas and have been showing up in Mill Creek following the fires.

Following a fire, forest service officials will often leave the aftermath as is.

However, in the short term at least, some problems arise from a large, hot fire.

Noxious weeds can get a leg up on native plants shortly after a fire moves through an area. And, after the hottest of fires, vegetation vital for healthy riparian zones can be slow to return, since the heat not only killed the plants on the surface but also the seeds and roots below.

"It in essence bakes the soil," said Marna Daley, spokeswoman for the Gallatin National Forest.

When that happens, the risk of erosion is heightened, shade to keep the creek cool is reduced and important habitat is destroyed.

The Wicked Fire was that hot. Two years after it burned across Mill Creek, biologists noted that many shrubs and trees were not coming back in strong force.

"Two years of staying black is unusual," said Julie Shea, a fire specialist with the

U. S. Forest Service. "It's especially rare in a riparian area."

Since the fire, according to a forest service press release, some animals have moved out of the area due to the destroyed habitat while others have died. And, it didn't appear that the area would see vigorous re-growth of many of the species on its own.

So, Cook and the men from Pacific Oasis moved in.

"My job is to determine what will and what will not regenerate in the Gallatin," Cook said Thursday.

"Everyone thinks we walk away after the fire, but there's a lot of post-fire monitoring," Shea said. "Within two years, do we have tree seedlings standing up, or is absolutely nothing happening?"

This is the crew's last stop in Montana, Bazan said.

"We go back home" after Mill Creek, he said. "See if we can get on a fire crew."

 
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