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Experts talk about harvesting, caring for damaged trees


December 6, 2017

Havre Dailiy News/Colin Thompson

Montana State University Extension Forestry Specialist Peter Kolb, Ph.D., shows Tuesday in the Bear Paw Mountains what to look for on a tree after fire damage to see if it will live. The demonstration was part of the Post Fire, How to Assess and What To Do seminar.

Forestry specialists armed attending landowners, residents and various county and reservation employees, during a two-part workshop Tuesday, with hours of information on best grazing, logging and tree-care practices.

The idea for workshops - sponsored by the Montana State University Extension, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Hill County Conservation District - was sparked by the damage caused and the trail of questions raised after this year's East Fork Fire and the Oct. 2-3 record-setting snowstorm.

Peter Kolb, Ph.D., a Montana State University Extension forestry specialist and Matt Ricketts, Natural Resources Conservation Service state forester, spoke to people in the Timmons Room of the Hill County Courthouse about how best to resuscitate grazing grass and forests after a fire has been through, including tree differences, logging and lifespan and how to identify a tree that will survive a fire, among many other things.

After that session, Kolb and Ricketts took people on site in the Bear Paw Mountains to apply what had been taught.

In the evening, Kolb spoke about trees and pruning methods - how to best take care of trees after the blizzard as well as tree diseases and how best to deal with them - in the Hill County Electric Hospitality Room on U.S. Highway 2 West.

Ricketts started the early workshop by talking about why fires have grown over the years.

"Catastrophic fires have increased in recent years," Ricketts said, a PowerPoint graph illustrating a significant uptick in fires over the years behind him.

Fires have increased because timber harvesting on public lands has been reduced, he said. In some states, broadcast burning - when an area within well defined boundaries is burned for reduction of fuel hazard as a resource management treatment - is allowed. In Montana, because of wind and lack of humidity,  broadcast burning is not suggested or practiced.

Ricketts talked about how to best recover from a fire. He spoke of practices that can lead to wildflower forage in areas where there weren't any. He also spoke on how best to resuscitate grazing pastures.

One of Ricketts' suggestions was to defer grazing on a burned area between one to two years after a fire. He supplanted the suggestion with images showing areas in Montana looking more lush and full after a fire than before the fire.

During this portion of the discussion someone wanted to know what one whose livelihood depended on grazing was supposed to do while deferring a season of grazing. USDA District Conservationist Laurie Massar said programs exist that may be able to help people in those situations. For example, Massar said, people who have been affected by fire can apply for an application to the Environmental Quality Incentive Program to see if they can get assistance while they defer grazing.  

When it comes to logging, there are three laws people need to know, Ricketts said, the Stream Management Zone Law, the 310 Law and the Montana Slash Law. It is also important to know important information about trees, log mills and related information, he added.

Most mills are between 180 and 250 miles from Havre, which takes away from lumber prices, Ricketts said. Burned trees fetch a lower price. And the longer a tree sits, the more its value descends. Some trees have a longer lifespan than others.

"Ponderosa trees decay at an enormous rate," Kolb said.

Some mills only take a certain kind of wood, Ricketts said. The only way to know is to call the mills.

Attending the meeting was Layne Waid, who, together with his father, has a family mill south of Havre. Waid said during a break that the Waids were looking for logging opportunities, if people needed their services.

Kolb focused his presentation on how best to thin land for a healthy land and how to assess which trees could survive a burn and which can't.

Some trees, such as ponderosa pines, can take a beating better than others, such as Douglas firs, he said. Kolb showed a series or pictures to help train eyes on what gives trees a chance at surviving a fire. The base - whether it's burned and has roots showing - is a good indicator if the tree can survive. Some people have taken trees down that would've survived, Kolb said. Other factors include how much of the crown is burned or what the surface beyond the bark look like.

In an evening workshop at Hill County Electric Hospitality Room, Kolb talked about how to address tree damage issues caused by the late fall snowstorm that damaged trees throughout the area.

Kolb, who worked in his early years as an arborist, said his philosophy is that people need to understand how different trees function biologically to understand how to care for and prune them, as well as provide emergency care needed after events such as the recent storm.

After covering the characteristics of both deciduous trees, such as elm, ash and cottonwood, and coniferous trees, such as spruce, fir and pine, commonly seen in the area, he explained some basic rules of pruning, outlined in a handout available at Hill County MSU Extension Office.

Healthy tree pruning, he said, begins by cutting limbs at the proper place. Limbs cut back to the tree stem, or trunk, need to be cut parallel to and about a quarter-inch from, the branch collar, which is the slight swelling at the base of the limb. Branches that are trimmed back in length need to be cut just past a healthy limb off that branch.

Branch stubs left at the trunk and past the last healthy limb will die off and leave the tree vulnerable to rot from disease and pests, he said.

Havre Dailiy News/Colin Thompson

A bare patch shows Tuesday on a fire-damaged tree in the Bear Paw Mountains where bark was scraped from this tree in order to see if it is still alive after being burned by the East Fork Fire.

When dealing with storm damage, Kolb said, it might take years of judicious trimming to get affected trees back to a healthy shape, but it should start with trimming all the broken ends before the leaves bud out in the spring.

He also added that it is considered almost sacrilege among tree professionals to "top" trees, which is to drastically cut all or most of the tree branches back to the trunk or, in the case of conifers, literally take the top of the tree off, but people have to work with what they've been dealt. Trees severely broken or cut back for power lines can still be healthy and functional with some work.

Editor's Note: More information on dealing with storm-damaged trees will be published in the January issue of Havre Daily News' Living Magazine.


Havre Daily News reporter Pam Burke contributed to this story.


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