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Success Story

Restoring Montana's Forestland: The Davaz Family's Journey Towards Conservation

On the forest heavy areas of the Davaz property, conifers are starting to invade the sage pastures

Dennis and Karen Davaz work with NRCS Soil Conservationist Cody Garcia, to battle encroachment to help bring back aspen trees.

Dennis and Karen Davaz acquired property along Eldridge Creek near Livingston, Montana in 2019 less than three weeks after inquiring with the previous owners—their long-time friends. After closing the deal on the property, they promptly set about identifying ways they could improve the landscape. Now the couple is committed to restoring the land, which had been idle for over 45 years. That involves working toward a landscape state similar to the period before suppression of the natural fire regime allowed for extensive conifer encroachment into grazing lands.

Dennis, having experience working alongside Montana State Forestry Extension for 30 years as a certified Forest Stewardship Advisor, thought to reach out to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for assistance.

“I was keeping in touch with the NRCS to find out when Focused Conservation was coming to our portion of Park County”, said Dennis.

The couple's dedication to preserving a diverse, scenic, working landscape has led them down a path of partnership and cooperation with the NRCS to achieve their land restoration and conservation goals.

While the Davazes are working to make improvements on their property, they want to keep it in an undeveloped state rather than build on it as neighboring property owners have done. Dennis and Karen feel like it’s their responsibility as stewards of the land to manage their landscape with minimal human impact to wildlife.

Landowner, Karen Davaz (L) and NRCS Soil Conservationist Cody Garcia look at plot maps and the conservation plan to discuss how forest management might help the most with the encroachment of conifers. Dennis and Karen Davaz property.

Improving the Land One Stick at a Time

Surrounded by both working ranches and large rural manors, the views afforded by mostly wide-open spaces captivated the family who loves spending time together on the property whenever their schedules allow.

The diverse landscape provides not only grazing for livestock, but essential habitat and migration corridors for a variety of wildlife including elk, deer, bears, and numerous species of birds such as owls and hawks.

When asked how someone might set out to tackle the seemingly immense task of improving rangeland and forest health on property impacted by conifer encroachment, Karen doesn’t hesitate in responding, “One stick at a time.” Dennis and Karen only have so much time, but they spend as much of it as they can cutting out undesirable trees by hand and pruning the desirable trees left in the stand.

It was tough for Dennis to bring back aspen trees to the groves that were being choked out by encroaching conifers. It became apparent that it was going to take a lot more time and financial resources. Undeterred, Dennis asked for help from the NRCS and was paired up with Soil Conservationist, Cody Garcia. They joined forces to formulate a management plan for the property and tackle the problem together.

In order to provide financial assistance through the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP), Garcia crafted a Targeted Implementation Plan (TIP) guided by the locally developed NRCS long-range plan for Park County. The intent of the TIP is to help restore and manage grazing lands impacted by conifer encroachment and infill. By working with the Davaz family and other landowners in the area, Garcia hopes to accomplish a handful of objectives. He is working to help landowners achieve their individual land management goals, address natural resource concerns prioritized by the NRCS, and create future opportunities to collaborate with other agencies. Garcia says it’s important to share project objectives upfront, then track and report the outcomes so potential partners can determine if and how they could help contribute to the bigger picture.

“What we’re trying to do is open up that canopy spacing to increase the herbaceous forage production in the forest understory and generally improve the rangeland health by removing conifers entirely from sites they don’t belong on,” says Garcia, adding “we’re taking into consideration plant health and productivity appropriate for both forest and rangeland grazing uses respectively.”

Fire Management is Top Priority

With the ever-present concern of wildfires, the Davaz family understands the need to address the real hazard posed by biomass accumulation in both the rangeland and forest sites on their property.

Dennis says, “In the event of some sort of ignition, we’d like to reduce the potential severity of a wildfire by interrupting fuel continuity within and across the landscape.  The interruption needs to happen from the ground up—into the crowns of trees and between trees that are selected to be left in the stand.”

Fuels reduction and wildfire mitigation are crucial parts of any forest management plan. The property falls within an area designated by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation as a priority area for landscape scale cross-boundary forest restoration and management efforts. This is due to a significantly high risk of wildfire and the presence of wildland-urban interface. The NRCS took this into account when drawing the boundaries for the TIP.

“We wanted to make sure we had some kind of synergy with other federal and state agencies so there would be more opportunities for future funding and collaboration,” says Garcia.

With drought conditions persisting in Montana, the Davazes acknowledge that it's not a matter of "if" but "when" a fire will eventually impact their forest land.

“These trees are so beautiful, and you see how big around they are,” Karen points out. “To have something come through—it’d be a crown fire and we would lose it all.”

“We’re concerned with wildfire hazard from biomass accumulation because you start to see high mortality in the grasses on unhealthy range sites. All that thatch builds up to provide fine fuels,” says Garcia, “and you get high loads of heavy fuels from the conifers encroaching, or growing out, onto the range. Those new stands infill over time with even more conifers until you have a very dense stand of trees where there used to be only grasses, forbs, and some shrubs.”

In response, NRCS recommends conservation practices including forest stand thinning, pruning, woody residue treatment, and brush management. Thinning a stand of trees helps to mitigate crown-to-crown spread of fire. Pruning reduces ladder fuels that allow fire to climb from a burning understory to the crowns of the trees. Managing woody residue, or “slash,” after thinning and pruning helps to mitigate the risk of both wildfire and tree disease. Brush management removes conifers from rangeland using one or more methods—the most common in Montana being mastication, or “chewing” up the trees with a chipping drum attached to a piece of heavy machinery on tracks. Strategically utilizing these practices can prevent significant property damage from future wildfire outbreaks.

Among the various species that are growing on the Davaz property in the understory, Wile Lupine creates a pop of color against the other grasses and vegetation.

Correcting the Feed and Forage Imbalance

The Davaz family is dealing with another problem too. The forest has been negatively impacted by overstocked stands and an influx of invasive plants, causing an imbalance in the forage available for wildlife. It’s essential to have healthy plants in the forest understory and on the range. Tall bunchgrasses, diverse forbs, and shrubs not only provide forage and browse but create habitat for wildlife.

“Our main goal started out as managing rangelands for conifer encroachment, but within Park County there are a lot of areas where the rangeland directly interfaces with the forest and much of the forestlands grazed by our producers are public lands under lease agreements with other agencies,” says Garcia. “So it is important for us to foster collaboration with those agencies.”

Conifers continue to infill forested regions with increasingly overstocked stands and spread into rangelands without a historic presence of coniferous trees. Conifer infill is inevitable without the high-frequency, low-intensity fire return intervals that were seen prior to Western settlement and fire suppression.

“Our focus is primarily on private lands. However, a significant proportion of the private lands within our priority areas is “checkerboarded” with public land throughout. Therefore, it is crucial for us to collaborate with state and federal agencies to effectively address these challenges on a landscape scale," says Garcia.

Working Toward Plant and Health Productivity

With NRCS’s guidance, the Davazes are using selective thinning to help maintain a healthier and more productive forest. Removing the weaker or otherwise undesirable trees from a stand creates more space in the canopy, allowing more light to reach the understory and making resources more available for the desirable trees that remain. Conifers tend to overtop and shade out quaking aspen stands, which Dennis and Karen are working to reinvigorate, eventually outcompeting them for resources until they disappear altogether.

The Davaz family knows that it's essential to manage for plant health and productivity in order to provide a resilient habitat and sustainable food source for wildlife.

“A project like this involves creating field plots to gather baseline data that are all indicators for rangeland health or forest health. We take inventory of stocking rates in tree stands and forage production on range sites—things like that,” says Garcia.

He notes the conservation plan includes leaving a corridor for wildlife, like elk, to travel in order to facilitate the completion of forest stand thinning activities with minimal disturbance to their natural habitat.

Montana Focused Conservation - The Big Picture

The Davaz family's dedication to conservation aligns with Montana's Focused Conservation efforts.

“About seventy percent of Montana is rangeland, so it’s no surprise that a large proportion of Park County is as well,” says Garcia.

Because rangelands make up a big part of the state, and Park County, it's really important to take care of and protect these areas. That’s why he works closely with landowners to understand their concerns and develop strategies to address them.

“As a conservation planner, I work with landowners like Dennis and Karen. We talk, try to build a working relationship, and find ways to assist with whatever they’ve got in mind,” says Garcia. “Even if we don’t have just the right program available, it’s my job to seek out that input from the public. What are people having issues with and what can we do about it? Then I can write a TIP to address it.”

The hope is to not only make an immediate positive impact, but also see measurable improvement over time in forest health.

“We have divided our property into six Management Units (MUs).  Each one is distinctly different from the others.  We are conducting an inventory of current conditions to take a closer look at the soil, range and forest resources within each MU.  We are also measuring existing fuel conditions.  The information that we collect within the Mus, along with our family’s goals, will guide us in prescribing treatment activities across the landscape and prioritizing them over time.  We have developed good road access in the property that should make implementation of our activities a little easier”.  

And for the couple who sealed the deal on a plot of land purchased virtually sight-unseen (at least by Karen) in just three short weeks, time remains a constant challenge to overcome. Then, it was maintaining their sanity during the whirlwind weeks leading up to their purchase of the land. Now, it’s finding the time to accomplish the ambitious goals they’ve set for themselves and their property. The Davaz family, however, is not giving up.

Even faced with the ongoing challenges of improving their land, the Davazes remain undeterred; firmly believing their path was destined from the start. In the resounding words of Karen, "It was meant to be."

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