Partnering to Protect the Wildland Urban Interface
NRCS, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the Lake County Conservation District, and local homeowners are partnering to improve forest health and decrease the threat of wildfire in the Rocky Point neighborhood on the northern shore of Flathead Lake.
Read about their work in the Partnering to Protect the Wildland Urban Interface Story Map. Find a text-only version of this story below.
Watch their story in Conservation for the Future: Rocky Point Forest Health, Lake County, MT.
Fertile valleys and soaring mountain peaks of northwest Montana surround the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River in the lower forty-eight states. Flathead Lake, with its crystal-clear water, abundant resources, and recreational opportunities is the showpiece of Lake County. Positioned in the northeast corner of the 1.2-million-acre Flathead Reservation, Flathead Lake has along its shorelines and tucked within its dense forests hundreds of homesites and other structures.
With its current population density and anticipated growth, the Rocky Point/White Swan area has been identified as a Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) by Lake County. WUI is defined as a transitional area between wilderness and land development. The constructed environment intermingles with the natural one and as a result, is at greater risk of catastrophic wildfire. The Rocky Point/White Swan area has been designated as a high priority for fire resilience and forest management.
“This is a unique situation,” states James Lozeau, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal (CSKT) Forestry. “There are 800,000 acres of timberland in the area. The tribe owns the south end of the lake with private landowners along the lake shores. You have private ownership, tribal ownership, allotments and a state wildlife refuge, basically a tribal section surrounded by private entities. One road in and out. It would be chaos if something did happen on this heavily trafficked road.”
Due to the increased chance of catastrophic wildfires, NRCS along with seventeen other natural resource partner groups came together to address the dense forests and abundant wildlife within the Rocky Point area. Rather than one-offs and selected random projects across the county, NRCS established a Targeted Implementation Plan (TIP) focusing on 5,000 acres of forest that encompasses 600 homesites within the designated WUI. “With Montana Focused Conservation, we take a new approach and focus on an issue within an area, in this case the Wildland Urban Interface and forest health,” explains NRCS Tribal Conservationist Herb Webb. “Now we focus on one issue in a geographic region and focus on what’s important for this resource need, in this place.”
Not only is this approach to conservation more targeted, but also it provides an opportunity to bring together multiple groups and agencies for even greater impact. CSKT Tribal Forestry is one such group that works across the entire reservation but has been harvesting in and around the NRCS TIP targeted area for some years. “Their footprint and what CSKT is doing is way beyond the 5,000 acres that we are focusing on,” states NRCS’s Webb. “We shared our preliminary maps with them and as it turns out, they had plans for work in some of those same areas. So, the Tribe signed up for work through the TIP on a parcel of ground inside this boundary.”
“Generally, with the Tribe, we are trying to return our forests to the old, traditional ecological state,” states Shawn DeFrance, CSKT Tribal Forestry. “This project specifically is for wildfire risk. On these unmanaged units you see a lot of ladder fuels, fuels that will carry fire up into the canopy. Our objective, if we do have a fire here, is to keep it on the ground so that we can catch it and minimize risk.”
CSKT member Lozeau concurs, “Crown fires carry the fire the majority of the time. On the ground, you get maybe three-foot flame lengths depending on the brush, in the crown you can get one-hundred-foot flame lengths – that’s what we’re trying to minimize. If we keep everything on the ground, we have a better chance of protecting home ownerships.”
Fire reduction projects can encompass a variety of approaches depending on the stand and its location - from complete stand removal to select tree removal and thinning. “We look for the dominant and co-dominant trees,” states Service Forester Shawn Morgan from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. “By that I mean, the trees that are getting the most sunlight, the highest canopy in the forest. We thin from below and remove our intermediates and suppressed. For fuel mitigation, you want to create space between the crowns and keep the fire on the ground. For forest health and vigor, you create canopy gaps for rejuvenation, allowing sunlight to hit the forest floor and then a new age class will develop underneath.”
Local Partnerships Take the Lead
On the local level, the Lake County Conservation District (LCCD) is leading the charge. “We are all about voluntary conservation,” LCCD’s Heidi Fleury explains. “A lot of people in the area are aware and concerned about fire safety. Once homeowners or landowners contact us, we conduct an assessment of their property and share with them ways they can make their area more ‘fire wise’ and fire safe in their ignition zone.” For the dense forests surrounding their homes, homeowners can apply for cost-share forest management assistance. “When homeowners join the program, we give them a forest management plan which they use to inform their contractor of the work to be done,” Heidi continues. “After the work is completed, we reimburse the homeowner with a cost-share at a certain rate.”
Private homes and man-made structures are not the only considerations when developing forest management plans such as this one. Multiple plants and animals call the Flathead Reservation and Lake County home, including at least seven endangered species -- grizzly bears, bull trout, Canada lynx, wolves, yellow-billed cuckoo, and whitebark pine among them. To minimize impacts, NRCS and its partners assess action plans prior to implementing them. “We do go through the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process to make sure we address the concerns and threats to endangered species,” states NRCS’s Webb. CSKT Tribal Forester DeFrance echoes the importance of full environmental assessments when developing its harvest plans, “Wildlife preservation might ask us to leave an elk pass-through area or the hydrology department will want us to make sure we aren’t harming stream flow. We have an interdisciplinary team and conduct an environmental assessment with everyone’s input.”
“There is more here than understory,” states NRCS’s Webb. “Anytime you do anything in the landscape to benefit one resource it has a domino effect. You’re going to benefit other species as well. There are just a lot of species that benefit from good management.”
Advantages of good forest management extend across boundaries and are mutually beneficial for both man and nature. Landscape scale projects such as the Rocky Point TIP bring together multiple landowners and multiple stakeholders for mutual benefit. “Groups and people bringing resources to the table, sharing and pooling money, staff, expertise and science,” concludes NRCS Supervisory District Conservationist Ben Montgomery. “When we invest taxpayer dollars, they are being spent wisely and being leveraged across multiple agencies and organizations to achieve something bigger.”