Helena Montana focuses on removing dead beetle kill pine trees

Posted: July 3, 2013

Source: Helena IR

beetle kill pine treesThe legacy of dead pine trees left by the mountain pine beetle infestation is Brad Langsather’s job to cleanup.

As the City of Helena’s natural resource coordinator, he’s been involved in seeing that crews work to remove swaths of dead trees that stand rust red against the backdrop of green pines that survived the epidemic.

The ongoing fuel-reduction work is clearing out these dead trees that pose hazards during windstorms.

“I’m constantly getting emails about trees across trails,” he said.

Another concern for him and reason that this work is important is the potential of these dead trees to feed a future wildfire.

“Helena’s certainly an area where wildfire’s a part of our life,” Langsather said. “You better do something to get ready for it.”

He recently went before the city commission to update it on the work that has taken on new emphasis as concerns for wildfire increase with dry conditions across the West and in the mountains on Helena’s south side where gulches would help funnel fire toward the city.

The lands where crews have been at work with chainsaws and chippers to remove dead trees were previously identified for their potential to burn in a wildfire, Langsather noted.

The city’s open lands are heavily forested and stocked with Ponderosa pine, so the mortality caused by the insects isn’t a surprise to him.

According to his figures, the city has 1,800 acres of open lands, of which some 1,550 acres — this amounts to 86 percent — are forested. Among that land with its once majestic stands of pine, a little more than 1,000 acres are listed as having beetle infestations.

As of May 20, 380 acres have been treated to remove the dead trees, which amounts to 38 percent of the land determined to be affected by mountain pine beetles.

“The Helena area was one of the hardest hit areas in the state,” he said.

Conditions were ripe for the loss that occurred a few years ago, as Langsather sees it. Plenty of pines were available for the beetles. Drought over a 10-year period stressed the trees. These are conditions he describes as “a perfect storm.”

Areas that the city had treated to thin and manage still took a beating from the beetles because of nearby forest lands that had not been treated and were home for the insects, Langsather added.

The effort to remove dead trees from city lands began with a request to the city commission in 2009 for a program of between $1.5 million and $2 million, he said. The initial strategy called for a 10-year plan.

An array of grants, both state and federal, produced nearly $942,000, which required the city to provide a match of almost $558,000 — its share included administrative costs. Together, the city amassed nearly $1.5 million and work began.

The open lands assessment to homeowners in the city was increased by $10 from its previous level of $7 a year to a total of $17 to help fund the city’s share of the project, City Manager Ron Alles said.

Initially there was concern in the community with regard to removing trees on Mount Helena and Mount Ascension which are popular places for local residents to hike and bike during the summer months. They also get their share of use by outdoor enthusiasts during the winter months.

Crews have been judicious in closing portions of trails and posting signs when working to minimize the disruption to those who use these areas for play, Langsather said.

Doing the work this way has meant a slower pace and a higher cost, he added.

City crews have also taken on much of the work too.

“We did what we said we needed to do in 2009,” Langsather said.

And work continues on those projects. Last winter crews were at work clearing the dead trees, and the work is ongoing.

Some of the dead trees have been cut into firewood by volunteers such as church groups while other of the trees have been ground into chips. Still others were sent by the contractor doing the work to a lumber mill for processing and then shipped to Portland, Ore., and loaded onto a boat for shipment to China, Langsather said.

Much of the initial emphasis on treating affected stands has been directed toward lands next to residential areas. The effort then turned to affected lands on Mount Helena.

Crews are now working on the northern face of Mount Ascention, along the city’s southern side where homes and forested lands intermingle.

Another project to remove dead trees involves the Red Mountain flume, to the west of town, that is part of the network allowing Helena to draw water from Tenmile Creek.

While the work on lands around town goes on all year, crews are kept out of the creek drainage by snow and are there from only about May to November.

Some 108 acres of private land is, with landowner consent, being treated in the drainage through funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Langsather said. About 71 percent of this work has been completed and is scheduled to be finished by November.

The city is also assembling a plan for the treatment of its lands in the drainage. About 265 acres out of the roughly 500 acres the city owns will require treatment, Langsather said, noting that the city’s overall acreage includes grasslands that have no trees and the surface of Helena’s two reservoirs there.

A 10-year rotation has been established for the city lands being treated so the work can be maintained.

“We’re gong to have to go in there and maintain the healthy spacing,” Langsather said.

“If you don’t do something about them, you’re going to have a problem with wildfire,” he continued.

Ensuring that the forest doesn’t again become thick with trees will help accelerate the growth as trees won’t be competing with one another, he added.

“In the long run, we’ll get a beautiful forest again that’s sustainable,” Langsather said.