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Interface Forestry

forest stewardship in the wildland-urban interface

Notes and Research

Administration of Forest Treatments

Several possible treatments and combinations of treatments are possible each with their own benefits and costs. The appropriate approach depends upon a variety of site conditions including slope, stand structure, and proximity to roads and surface water, as well as the site's proximity to markets for the wood products resulting from treatment.

In some management cases, treatments will call for harvesting merchantable logs, which can be sold at a profit, depending upon the site's proximity to a mill and its log prices. In some cases we can sell small-diameter trees or chips to a local pulp mill or to saw mills for their power generation.

In all cases, we must cope with the problem of removing or otherwise disposing of the slash, the tons per acre of small-diameter trees, branches, and other fresh debris that we produce in most forest operations. Once we have cut the trees, good practice and state law mandate that we treat the remaining slash in some way to reduce fire hazard, maintain good habitat for migrating wildlife, and employ a sense of aesthetics. We discuss slash elimination and other forest operations and treatments in the following sections.

The following sections discuss some of the techniques and combinations of techniques that we use to treat forest parcels to meet our management objectives:

Thinning from Below

Thinning from below involves removing non-merchantable, small-diameter trees according to a prescribed plan. Several approaches to thinning-from-below are possible:

  • Several operators in this region use a combination of chain saw felling and forwarding. In this scenario, the operator commonly uses small tractors with grapple hooks to pull bunches of harvested, small trees to landings for chipping, hauling, or burning.

    The advantage of this approach is that the operator can be very careful to protect retained trees from mechanical damage. The disadvantage is that it is very labor intensive and prohibitively expensive over large areas. While the chain saw-forwarder combination will have its place for years to come, mechanized tree removal will replace most of its current work.
  • Another approach to thinning from below involves a masticator, which chews and grinds biomass rather than cutting it. These machines, which also have a 30-foot reach, produce mashed chunks of wood that have far more surface area exposed to decay than the more planar wood chips. These chunks are scattered across the landscape.

    These operations are definitely limited by terrain and should not be used on wet soils (unless frozen).
  • A few operators are investing in a new generation of harvesters designed specifically for small-diameter removal in the wildland-urban interface. These harvesters, which can harvest and stack small-diameter trees, have a low impact on forest soils and are much more dexterious than conventional logging equipment. As they have working spans ranging up to 65 feet, often with full swiveling capabilities, they are able to work in large areas with relatively little movement and impact.

    An operator with one of these harvesters can work four-times faster than a chain saw operator and with far less personal hazard. Labor constitutes a significant share of forest operations. The disadvantages are that the machines are limited to slopes less than 20 percent, though they are still more flexible than the larger masticators. Unfortunately, no operators in Montana currently have one of these harvesters, for economic reasons. (The initial expense is high, and though the pay-off is excellent, payments are expensive. Thus, the operator requires an almost-guaranteed clientele to avoid idle time.)

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Fuel Removal Treatments

Our crews will remove vegetation -- trees and shrubs -- that contribute to fuel loading in the Home Ignition Zone, while paying careful attention to aesthetic concerns. (We do not work with flammable and hazardous materials or offer services concerned with fire-proofing buildings.)

We can also formulate an H.I.Z. fuel management plan following the same general guidelines as the forest fuels management plan (directly below).

For forest lands surrounding H.I.Z.s, we remove unwanted fuels with thinning-from-below treatments to meet management objectives. For larger ownerships, we suggest an explicit fuel reduction management plan, which will include:

  1. A Fuels Assessment.
  2. An accompanying Maps.
  3. A Statement of Objectives.
  4. Recommended Treatments (with detailed and easy-to-read schedule and map).

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Small-diameter Logging.

Small-diameter logging is a variation of thinning from below, but the logs must be large enough to be merchantable. (Generally, in Montana, a log must measure at least 17 feet long with minimal defect -- no crooks or sweep -- and have a top diameter inside bark greater than 4.5 inches diameter.

Operators using chain saws or small harvesting equipment fell and forward logs to a log deck. (Our operators are careful not to damage remaining trees.) At the deck, log trucks upload them and haul them to the nearest mill. For large forested tracts, small-diameter logging harvesters are much more cost-effective than sawyers using chain saws, though they are more limited by terrain.

As with chip hauling, the profitability of small-diameter logs depends upon the proximity of the site to the point-of-sale and the price the buyer is currently paying for logs. (Lumber mills and log-house factories are common log buyers in Montana.) As hauling distance increases, costs increase, and as prices rise and fall, small-diameter logging profits rise and fall.

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Slash Disposal

In Montana, a only a few buyers will pay for small-diameter tree and slash products. One solution is to chip the stems or haul them whole (as pulpable trees) to the state's only pulp mill in Missoula, a cardboard producer. However, hauling costs, including fuel and labor, are high and the mill uses pricing strategies to keep their buying prices low. Furthermore, this option leaves the leaves (pine needles), twigs, and small diameter branches, which must be burned in slash piles or scattered. Slash burning requires an experienced crew, a permit, and the right weather conditions. (We discuss slash burning further below in this section.) Scattering creates a surface fuel hazard.

A few mills buy hog fuel, which includes all biomass (stems to pine needles), to use as a fuel source for power generation. However, this market is also limited by hauling costs and a low price paid for the material.

With limited markets for slash products, a landowner or manager is often left to dispose of the slash on-site. One common approach that we use is to chip or masticate and scatter the material on the forest floor. However, there is a significant disadvantage to this practice: chipping and scattering increase surface fuel loadings guaranteeing a more intense flame front during a wildfire fire incident! Because most forestlands in Montana are dry, scattered and pile chips can last for decades on a forest floor, providing a long-term source of surface fuel.

However, we are experimenting with a new approach for chip disposal: using edible fungi to decay the piles, yielding a nutrient-rich compost and a good supply of edible mushrooms. In good, moist conditions, these organisms can reduce the volume of a chip pile by half in four months, maintaining a high moisture level in the chip/compost pile even during the summer. Currently, we are working with two species native to many of the ecosystems in western Montana. The first is Lyophyllum descastes, otherwise known as "Fried Chicken Mushroom," or to the Japanese, "Chimaji." The second is Pleurotus pulminarius, otherwise known as "Oyster Mushrooms."

Another common approach to slash disposal that we can use is slash burning. This practice involves piling slash into piles in open places during and immediately after thinning operations, and burning them in the late fall, when the ground is moist from fall rain and snow. This process requires a two-person, overnight crew for each pile, as well as fire permits. The significant disadvantage to this approach is that it emits large volumes of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses.

Slowly, other markets for chips are starting to emerge, but for now, they are highly limited. Thus, land owners must often dispose of slash by burning or by chipping or masticating and scattering the treated biomass on the property -- less-than optimal solutions.

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Prescribed Fire

Prescribed fire is the only practical (cost-effective and ecologically effective) way to truly reduce small and medium sized fuels, and if done correctly, it provides a windfall of available nutrients to the local soil ecology, which in turn provides available nutrients to vegetation.

Legal broadcast burning requires a licensed, insured, bonded, and experienced crew and crew leader and follows a very specific path. The major steps include:

  1. Stating the management objectives that the prescribed fire will support
  2. Measuring and assessing current fuel conditions and terrain (particularly, slope). This step generally requires a stand exam and a fuels assessment.
  3. Entering data into a fire behavior model to determine expected fire behavior under a range of conditions. Using this information, we can determine whether or not the stand will need to be pretreated (thinned or otherwise cleared) before broadcast burning in order to avoid high mortality or a uncontrollable wildfire.
  4. If deemed necessary, a pre-burning thinning treatment. This treatment will remove small diameter trees with the objective of creating safe conditions for the prescribed burn. This treatment can involve any of several thinning techniques discussed above.
  5. Reassess fuel conditions (if we have opted for a pre-burn treatment). Another stand exam won't be necessary if operators have been true to the prescription.
  6. Write a prescribed fire plan. This plan will include:
    1. A precise statement and structural description of the burning objectives in terms of fuel loading and fuel types. Burning objectives describe desired post-burn fuel loading.
    2. A precise statement and structural description of the conditions under which the fire may proceed (in order to maintain a controlled burn). The factors include wind, fuel moisture, and several other weather and fuel characteristics. If conditions are too damp, a fire will not carry, and if they are too dry (or windy), a fire can get out of control. Some conditions unfavorable to safe burning include uphill wind, high temperatures, and dry fuel. The fire operator must maintain a balance between the two extremes of too wet and too combustible.
    3. A precise statement regarding the crew, tools, equipment, and materials that the burn will require.
    4. A budget
    5. An action plan (with escape routes, safety zones, and other required specifications).
  7. Obtain a burn permit.
  8. Assemble and prepare a crew.
  9. Wait for a day that meets the required range of conditions. Fuel conditions must be moist enough to counter risk of severe mortality or a wildfire incident, yet dry enough to carry a fire. Usually, acceptable stand conditions are rare -- only a few occurences per year, if any.
  10. Assemble the crew on site and reevaluate weather conditions. If they meet the criteria for safety, carry through the broadcast burning and conduct mop-up.
  11. Conduct a post-burn assessment and evaluation, including determining what percentage of the pre-fire fuels remain.

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Tree Planting

We offer the highest quality tree planting services, with experienced, professional planters using the best of local and regional planting stock. Generally, we prefer the natural process of forest regeneration from native seed trees, but in many situations, the process of natural regeneration is not nearly adequate to meet restoration objectives:

  • Severely degraded sites, including sites with compacted soil, overburnt soil (from wildfire), erosion, and other inhospitable conditions.
  • Sites with degraded seed sources due to historical practices, like selective cutting (high-grading).
  • Sites with no seed sources, due to clear cut logging, stand replacing wildfire, or prolonged fire suppression and the consequent process of forest succession.

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