Flathead National Forest – 2019 Year in Review

Jump to a Section: Recreation | Plans and Projects | Timber | Fire | Resource Conservation | Law Enforcement and Investigations | Flathead Avalanche Center | Education, Private, and Non-Profit Partnerships | Looking Ahead to 2020

2019 Year in Review on a background of conifer trees

In 2019, the Flathead National Forest continued focused efforts to provide sustainable recreation opportunities for the public, reduce wildland fuels threatening homes and communities, and increase timber harvest opportunities for the local and national economy.

“This was a tremendous year for public involvement on all fronts,” said Flathead National Forest Supervisor Chip Weber. “Between initial implementation of our new forest plan, participation in development of a Comprehensive River Management Plan for the Flathead River, contributions from local youth crews and area nonprofits partners on the ground, and so many members of our community engaged in management and use of the national forest, we continue to see increased levels of care, stewardship, and pride in our forest.”

Here are a few highlights from a busy year.

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looking at a loaded horse and mule packstring from above, traveling on a trail to a fire lookoutFlathead National Forest is home to the second largest recreation program in the Forest Service Northern Region, spanning 33 campgrounds, 92 developed recreation sites, and 2,260 hiking, biking, and horseback trail miles. It also hosts winter outdoor activities including multiple Nordic and downhill ski areas operated and maintained by nonprofit and private partners, and 157 miles of designated snowmobile trail some of which are maintained by local nonprofit snowmobile groups.

In 2019, trail crews were able to maintain more trail miles than average due to light blowdown. This means that some trails that hadn’t seen work in recent years were cleared and repaired by Forest Service crews, youth crews, volunteers, and nonprofit partners funded through philanthropy. 

The forest’s 14 cabin rentals continued to be in very high demand, with most bookings near 100% occupancy. Cabin rental fees are returned to the program for investment. This year, Zips Cabin, Anna Creek Cabin, and Owl Packer Cabin were all upgraded with improvements like new exterior stain, heater replacement, and foundation repairs using cabin rental fees.Zip's Cabin, a log cabin standing in a forest, with a fresh coat of brown paint.

With outfitter and guide permit fees, the forest improved the Polebridge River Access Site on the bank of the North Fork of the Flathead River. Natural river migration had made the old boat ramp unusable.

Guided trips continue to be a popular way to explore the forest. This year, the forest administered 142 outfitter and guide recreation permits which collectively served tens of thousands of people. The public took advantage of guided hunting, fishing, floating, day hiking, horseback riding, snowmobiling, and overnight backpacking trips.

The forest maintained over 300 miles of road in 2019 to protect road surfaces and water quality while providing continued motorized access for the public and administrative access for fire suppression, fuels management, and timber harvest activities. This included a rapid response to perform a significant culvert repair near Meadow Creek Road on the Spotted Bear Ranger District shortly before hunting season. The culvert became clogged, saturating the roadbed and causing unsafe driving conditions. Crews completed the repair to reopen the road, which is popular during hunting season for outfitters and the public, wilderness hikers, and people accessing stock corrals and base camps at the end of the road.

Visitors to the Spotted Bear Ranger Station will enjoy a more consistent and sustainable power source in the future. This year, the forest upgraded an antiquated hydroelectric generator to a new state-of-the-art technology hydroelectric operating system that will reduce reliance on back-up generator propane consumption and improve efficiency and reliability of power production.

This fall, forest visitors may have encountered forest staff in remote locations conducting visitor use surveys.  This effort estimates the number of visitors to the forest, and information about that visit, including activities, demographics, visit duration, and spending. The surveys are conducted every five years, and the last data for Flathead National Forest was released in 2015. In 2015, survey results showed that the annual number of day and overnight visitors exceeded 1.2 million. This year’s survey results will be available in 2020. People can expect to see survey efforts continue through September of 2020.

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Plans and Projects

In January of 2019, Flathead National Forest’s new forest plan went into effect after Forest Supervisor Chip Weber signed it in late 2018. Flathead National Forest was the second forest in the nation to finalize a new forest plan under a 2012 national planning rule. Its completion follows a significant effort with a high degree of community involvement. The public submitted 33,000 comments.

Planning for several new projects is underway or was completed this year including Taylor Hellroaring, Hellroaring Basin, Crystal Cedar, Frozen Moose, and Mid-Swan Landscape Restoration. These projects include vegetation management proposals to improve forest health, reduce hazardous fuels, provide timber products to the local economy, and offer new recreational opportunities such as trails and ski area enhancements along with other restoration efforts such as aquatic improvements and whitebark pine restoration.

A kayaker floats on the South Fork of the Flathead RiverFlathead National Forest and partner Glacier National Park continued a planning process for a Comprehensive River Management Plan for the 219-mile Three Forks of the Flathead Wild and Scenic River, including holding several open houses and a public comment period in 2019. This planning process includes a data collection effort in partnership with Glacier National Park, Glacier Conservancy, and the University of Montana to measure public use on various river sections. Visitation to the area has seen significant growth over the last decade. In addition to self-guided float trips, the forest partners with nine commercial outfitter and guide companies who connect a wide range of residents and tourists to these remarkable rivers, regardless of rafting experience. 

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Two timber workers sit in a conifer forest with lichen-covered trees and green on the forest floorFlathead National Forest sold 50.6 million board feet (98,582 Hundred Cubic Feet) of timber volume in fiscal year 2019. That number encompassed 41 active sales. The team also assisted with administration of some sales on the Rexford and Fortine Districts of the Kootenai National Forest. The sales were largely dominated by Douglas fir and lodgepole pine, species abundant in the region. The total sale value was $3.2 million.

This year, the forest began a new partnership with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) under the Good Neighbor Authority. The authority, which was part of the 2018 Farm Bill, allows the Forest Service to partner with state agencies to achieve forest management objectives and restoration. The first sale sold and administered by DNRC on Forest Service lands under GNA was the Liger Timber Sale currently underway near Hungry Horse Reservoir.

The public enjoyed a variety of forest products available under free or low-cost permits including Christmas trees, firewood, mushrooms, and greenery like ferns. Huckleberry picking is also allowed without a permit for noncommercial use, up to 10 gallons. The forest was a pilot for the new Open Forest online Christmas Tree permit system, which allows people to purchase tree permits at their convenience from home.

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Forest road in the foreground with Ashley Lake & a smoke plume rising from the forest to the right.The Flathead Valley had a relatively quiet fire season in 2019.  The forest had 41 fires, the largest of which was the 1,815 acre Snow Creek Fire in the Bob Marshall Wilderness south of Black Bear Cabin.  Four fires in September were not staffed due to cooler and wet weather. The largest of those grew to 10 acres. Crews, engines and individuals went on assignments to nine states and Alberta, Canada. Typically, though fire crews may be stationed at a designated forest, they are available for nationwide assignment if conditions allow.

Flathead National Forest completed a variety of hazardous fuel reduction work to promote healthy vegetation, change the way wildfire moves through the forest, and reintroduce fire as part of a natural ecosystem. Key projects in Fiscal Year 2019 were 64 acres of hand cutting and pile burning near the town of Coram, and hand cutting and burning 100 acres near Pinnacle Creek.

In total, fuels management actions contributed to:

  • 1,250 acres burned through prescribed fire
  • 1,080 acres of piles burned
  • 4,384 acres thinning/slashing
  • 640 acres of piling completed
  • 4,955 acres of treatment contributed through timber harvest

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Resource Conservation

Crews planting whitebark pine on the Swan Lake DistrictThis year, for the eleventh year in a row, the forest did not see the invasive Dyer’s woad population on Tally Lake Ranger District flower or seed. The plant is a priority noxious weed for the State of Montana, and the forest has been working alongside Working Dogs for Conservation and the state to prevent seeding and eradicate it from forest areas. One flowering plant was found on the North Fork Road, though no others were located for the remainder of the season.

Montana Conservation Corps assisted the forest with weed control in the Bob Marshall Wilderness and front country areas like Holland Lake and Foys to Blacktail Trail. This year the forest also began new biological control methods of treating leafy spurge, an invasive weed that is toxic to cattle and horses, among other negative effects. 

The forest pursued a variety of activities to further reforestation, stand improvement, and tree improvement. Crews re-planted apA worker on a ladder gathers ponderosa pine cones from a treeproximately 1,200 acres in areas previously harvested or burned by wildfire using ponderosa pine, western larch, Douglas-fir, and whitebark pine. The tree improvement program collected 150 bushels of ponderosa pine cones from genetically superior trees at the Bigfork Tree Improvement Area. The cones will produce enough seedlings to plant 7,000 acres. The forest also led a collaborative effort comprised of managers and researchers to complete a pilot Crown of the Continent Whitebark Pine Restoration Strategy on 4.5 million acres in Glacier National Park, Flathead National Forest and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal lands. The strategy will allow land managers to focus resources on whitebark pine restoration projects with the highest likelihood of success.

Forest staff continued soil monitoring in conjunction with the timber sale program and conducted general soil productivity monitoring and Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) analyses.

The forest continued water quality and aquatics protection efforts including broad scale culvert inspections in bull trout habitat and removing or upgrading culverts in several areas to improve nearby stream habitat. It also installed a new fish barrier near Beaver Creek on the Swan Lake Ranger District to protect a valuable population of native Westslope cutthroat trout from non-native brook trout.

Wildlife biologists supported timber and fuels targets, ensuring that forest habitat continued to support nearly 300 species of amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals, including the threatened grizzly bear and Canada lynx. Essential partnerships made it possible to continue other important work.  Swan Valley Connections and Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks educated campers and other forest visitors about bear-country safety.  Montana Loon Society and Montana DNRC funded education and conservation efforts important for sustaining common loons nesting on forest lakes. The forest also partnered with Flathead Audubon Society to monitor raptor migration at a premier HawkWatch site on the edge of Jewel Basin. Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and others helped fund wildlife habitat improvement efforts in elk and deer winter ranges. The forest was active on several interagency wildlife committees and working groups and collaborated on research and monitoring efforts on Canada lynx, grizzly bears, wolverines, elk, snowshoe hares, and other species.

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Law Enforcement and Investigations

Pile of garbage dumped at a trailhead, including many spent fireworks boxes and detritus.Flathead National Forest Law Enforcement Officers in partnership with the Flathead County Sheriff’s Department protect resources and public safety throughout the forest. In 2019, officers worked to reduce vehicle travel in unpermitted areas, drug use, and long-term camping. Multiple clean-ups occurred that often required significant government funds including abandoned vehicles, fireworks, and debris dumping.

Forest neighbors and visitors played an important role in the forest’s law enforcement program, reporting unusual activity and calling in tips for law enforcement action. Road and snowmobile maps are available at district offices and online that can help people plan their trips into permitted vehicle areas that are open for use and do not harm wildlife habitat or other resources.

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Flathead Avalanche Center

Radio Ridge PitThe 2018-19 winter brought extreme conditions for outdoor activities. Both unusually warm and unusually cold, with a range of exceptional to very poor snow quality were all characteristics of the winter experience that challenged forecast staff. The snowpack contained several persistent weak layers that culminated with a significant wet cycle in March. Flathead Avalanche Center issued 119 avalanche forecasts, including three significant avalanche warnings in 2019, alerting the public to dangerous backcountry conditions in the Whitefish, Swan, and Flathead Ranges, and Glacier National Park.

Avalanche education numbers broke a record, despite numerous classes that were cancelled due to extreme cold. In addition to other types of avalanche center support, the education partnership with Friends of the Flathead Avalanche Center reached 1,757 students, including a youth audience of 700, to grow avalanche awareness with the local community.

Over the course of the winter, Flathead Avalanche Center recorded nine near-misses or accidents, in which seven people were caught and carried. One of these, a snowmobiler in the Rocky Mountain Front, resulted in a fatality. Overall, 25 avalanche fatalities were reported in 2019 nationwide, three of them in Montana.

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Education, Private, and Non-Profit Partnerships

This year, the forest began exploring new partnerships on multiple fronts to harness public enthusiasm for trails, rivers, and other aspects of the forest. Nearly 50 partners work across the forest maintaining trails and controlling weeds, conducting scientific surveys, restoring , hosting youth programs, providing public information, managing hazardous fuels, and stewarding wilderness areas.

Montana Conservation Corps hiking on a trail.In 2019, under the Secure Rural Schools Act, the Forest Service Region One Regional Forester appointed a roster of 15 diverse community members to the Flathead County Resource Advisory Committee. Those members were responsible for reviewing and voting to recommend grant funding for over 50 project proposals from Flathead National Forest and community proponents. They ultimately awarded approximately $440,000. Many of the projects will be focused on improving recreation opportunities through trail maintenance, trailhead improvements, and access. Other projects will reduce road dust on travel routes to improve safety and enjoyment. Approved aquatics projects generally focused on invasive species detection and riparian restoration. One project will add capacity to timber management by supporting a Montana Conservation Corps (MCC) crew to mark suitable timber for sale. An MCC crew marked timber and assisted with fuels reduction last year as a pilot project, with great success. 

This fall, Flathead National Forest was co-host to the 12th TRB International Conference on Low Volume Roads. Over 200 people from across the United States and around the world visited the forest to learn about slope stabilization, aquatic organism passage, dust abatement and new technologies for evaluating road conditions. The conference was organized with partners at Montana State University and the Transportation Research Board.

The forest offered outdoor and curriculum-based education through numerous key community partnerships including local school districts, Glacier Institute, Swan Valley Connections, and Whitefish Mountain Resort. The forest operates the Summit Nature Center at Whitefish Mountain Resort which welcomes the public during the summer and winter school breaks. In 2019, it held nearly 30 summer ranger led walks in addition to hiking patrols, education group hikes, and the Junior Forest Ranger Program. Nearly 300 school children participated in winter programs on wildlife and snow safety. The programs are partially supported by partnerships with Friends of the Flathead Avalanche Center, and Glacier National Park Conservancy. Glacier Institute and Swan Valley Connections operate out of the Big Creek Discovery School on the Hungry Horse-Glacier View District and the Condon Work Center on the Swan Lake District respectively, providing additional curriculum based educational opportunities about the forest and other surrounding public lands.

This year also marked the 15th anniversary of the Artist-in-Residence program. Two artists spent their residency in the Great Bear and Bob Marshall Wilderness Areas. Each year, the residents from the previous year return to the area to share their experience and art with the community. In 2019, the artists who came back to share their experiences hosted several Trees for the Forest workshops for school children, and a series of musical performances at a local theater. The program is sponsored in partnership with the Hockaday Museum of Art, Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation, and Swan Valley Connections.

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Looking Ahead to 2020

In 2020, the forest will welcome a new forest supervisor when current Forest Supervisor Chip Weber retires at the end of the year. Planning will continue for the Wild and Scenic River Corridor, and other restoration and forest management projects will be announced or continue. The forest will continue to pursue and enhance private and non-profit partnerships that connect the forest with its community, create capacity, and better serve the public.