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Celebrating Forest Management and Cooperation
Getting 26 forest landowners to agree presents unusual scenario
By Barbara Coyner
Take a retired IT guy, a seasoned banker from the city, a clinical psychologist from California, and a previous tree farmer of the year recipient. Next, place them all on their dream properties near a picturesque lake in western Montana. What are the odds they will all agree on the same land management? And, what are the odds they’ll all sign up to have logging equipment coming onto their property and thin their five- to twenty-acre adjoining parcels?
Libby, Montana consulting forester and logging contractor Jerry Okonski admits that he had his work cut out in forging consensus among the 26 diverse landowners. But he hatched a treatment plan, pitched it to the Montana DNRC, and leveraged stimulus funds to implement the 500-acre project. Once the project wrapped up, he threw a potluck this June to celebrate the highly unusual accomplishment.
Invitation to Log Their Land
“The lands that were thinned were mostly contiguous to one another, which will provide you as well as your cooperating neighbor a reduced risk of wildfire and increased tree growth,” he wrote in his invitation to the June potluck outside Bigfork, Mont. “With your cooperation, we have accomplished something unique in forest stewardship.”
Despite the varied backgrounds of the landowners, one issue drew them together: wildfire danger. As Okonski’s project was selected from some 35 applications for stimulus funding, he went out and knocked on doors, showing property owners the condition of the forests around them, and asking them to sign up for treatment. In simple terms, he was applying to log their land.
Understanding the Issues
Once landowners internalized the fact that their forests had been overgrown with scraggly stands of grand fir and lodgepole pine, and that adjacent DNRC lands had been neglected as well, they asked to know more.
Working with other foresters from DNRC, Stoltze Land and Lumber, and wildfire behavior expert Rick Trembath, Okonski educated the group. Some like Fred Hodgeboom, a Forest Service retiree and previous tree farmer of the year recipient, needed little convincing. It was for him a win-win because the stimulus funding, coupled with any income from saw logs and pulp, would reduce his costs to nearly nothing, and make his property healthier. Other landowners like Don and Mary Ann Garner, transplants from Salt Lake City, learned so much that they’ve since signed up for further forest stewardship classes offered through local extension services.
“We never had any major disagreements,” said Okonski of the landowners, many of whom were strangers to one another as the project started. “One landowner backed out, as she thought we were cutting too much, so she used her arborist. But her property did not reduce fuel ladders, and instead they basically pruned them up.”
Managing and Reducing Fire Risk
During the two-year contract, Okonski and his sub-contractors culled vast swaths of grand fir, leaving behind healthier Douglas fir and larch. Mixed lodgepole stands were thinned extensively to create park-like settings. Because the Echo Lake area is an attractive resort area, visuals had to be addressed. As brush and slash were piled and burned, the treatments made way for better forest health and regeneration. The landowners viewed this in a positive light, and began to act as stakeholders, largely due to foresters and loggers who had been sensitive to their questions and concerns.
In addition to managing lands for forest health and reduced wildfire risk, the project met another valuable goal of contributing to keep Montana’s timber industry infrastructure working. Unfortunately Missoula’s pulp mill Smurfit Stone went belly-up during the project, putting a huge hole in plans for targeted treatment income of $1500 per acre in product value and treatment subsidy.
Eventually Okonski and landowners received a $700 per acre subsidy, with pulp and saw logs kicking in around $400. That dropped the per acre income to $1000-$1100, making the project more difficult to complete. Yet the effort showcased what could be done when diverse property owners work together.
Potluck to Celebrate
“You have pulled off quite an accomplishment,” Stoltze forester Paul McKenzie quipped during the potluck presentations. “It’s not often you can get 26 landowners to come to any level of agreement.”
DNRC forester Roger Ziesak concurred, noting that tackling so many small connecting tracts presented a real test. Charged with doing state inspections, Ziesak added, “Jerry did a great job here, and I would put this project up against any project in the country. This is the way stimulus money is supposed to work.”
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