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Seventy years ago today, an 18-man smokejumper crew jumped out of a plane into the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness northeast of Helena. Within hours of the jump the crew was overrun by the fire they were sent to stop, and most of the men died.

MTPR's Corin Cates-Carney looks back at the Mann Gulch tragedy, which lead the U.S. Forest Service — for the first time — to approach wildfire as a science.

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The Fraser Experimental Forest is one of 13 outdoor research laboratories in the country. It comprises 23,000 acres that are home to hundreds of research projects, studying everything from the photosynthesis of a single plant to the broader relationships between management practices and impacts on the ecosystem.

Situated on public land near popular attractions, such as Byers Peak and St. Louis Creek, the experimental forest is seeing more recreators than ever, but all that traffic is leading to concerns about the effects more use might have on the research projects happening on site.

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stunning avalanche season saw thousands of slides snap mature tree trunks like twigs, wipe historic buildings off the map and radically alter Colorado’s mountain landscape.

But the big slides that splintered conifer forests and felled massive aspen groves also delivered an important new scientific resource to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and U.S. Forest Service: downed trees.

Now a team of researchers is working through the wreckage, collecting cross sections from the fallen trees that they say will help them learn more about the relationship of climate to avalanche cycles.

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"This season presented an opportunity that researchers didn’t want to lose," said Kelly Elder, a research hydrologist for the U.S. Forest Service who in early June was collecting samples from trees near Silverton. “A bunch of us came together and realized this is a real opportunity and we should jump on it.”

By dating trees in avalanche paths, researchers can measure the length of time between avalanche cycles. This type of work is known as dendroecology — the study of tree-ring patterns and the ecological factors that create them, which can include climate. 

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EDITOR’S NOTE: In this three-part series, Montana Free Press examines how federal land management agencies have approached wildfire in the past and highlights key public and private sector developments that could change how we engage with it in the future. Previously: Part 1 – The evolution of wildfire suppression.

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Greg Dillon, a spatial fire analyst at the fire sciences lab, helped map Missoula County’s fire hazard for its Community Wildfire Protection Plan using a huge array of variables, including topography, recent fire history, and vegetation type. By next spring, that kind of detailed fire-risk mapping will be publicly available in an online format so land-use planners, elected officials, and fire managers nationwide can make informed decisions at the community or county scale.

“What’s exciting to me is that we’re developing more and more sophisticated and thoughtful tools to help [firefighters and fire managers] make better decisions,” Dillon said of the new research. Such tools are designed to inform both immediate strategic decisions about active fires and broader, forward-looking policies geared toward fire management, rather than a default strategy of suppression. “My hope is that in the next 20 years we see more of that stuff being widely adopted,” Dillon said.

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A small portion of Idaho County will be included in one of two “priority landscapes,” in which Idaho officials will partner with the U.S. Forest Service and others to plan and carry out projects designed to mitigate the risk of large wildfires, improve wildlife habitat and boost timber output.

Idaho Gov. Brad Little announced Monday the designation of the priority landscape areas, each exceeding 2 million acres, with one in southern Idaho and one in the northern half of the state.

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We tend to assume that plants come from seeds. However, not all that we see has come from seeds as explained in a new paper by [U.S. Forest Service Research Ecologist] Jacqueline Ott and colleagues, “The Ecology and Significance of Belowground Bud Banks in Plants“. It’s a paper that promises to be useful for anyone studying perennial plants.

Speaking to Botany One, Dr Ott said: “Perennial plants use aboveground buds, like buds in leaf axils, to produce new branches. In temperate regions, plants use these aboveground buds to overwinter and resprout in the spring. Plants can use belowground buds in a similar fashion. Belowground buds can enable a plant to go dormant over an adverse seasonal period, like winter. Then they grow back when conditions are more favorable. They can also be used to resprout after disturbance, such as grazing, fire, or ploughing, injures a plant.”

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“Freshwater biodiversity is disappearing,” Tonkin said. “Climate change is magnifying the pressures on river ecosystems brought on by urbanization, invasive species and pollution. As the crisis worsens, we need to change how we study, model and manage rivers to safeguard the services they provide to humanity and all of the planet.”

Joining Tonkin and Lytle as co-authors are scientists from Colorado State University, the University of Washington, the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Canberra, La Trobe University, the University of Melbourne, and the United States Forest Service.

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While biocontrol seems simple – acquire the weeds’ natural enemies and release them – the approval process for individual insects takes about five years, said Sharlene Sing, research entomologist with the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station who specializes in biocontrols. That is to ensure the bugs will not have any unintended consequences once out in the wild.

Because insects evolve with the plants they feed on, approved bugs like weevils for toadflax are “host specific,” meaning they only feed on one species. That means that two different weevils have been imported to suppress each species of toadflax.

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“The extent to which a previous wildland fire helps stop new fires from starting and spreading has not been well studied,” said Sean Parks, a research ecologist with the USDA Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute. Based in Missoula, Montana, Parks has made a career of studying fire regimes in the West to determine how fire naturally responds to climate trends, topography, current weather patterns, fuels and past fires.
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PRIEST RIVER — Established in 1911, the 6,368-acre Priest River Experimental Forest has a number of ongoing research projects, including silviculture, weather and stream flow monitoring, and snowpack observations.

The research center also provides the perfect place for local youth to learn about outdoor stewardship and the significance of the forests around them. This was the idea the Priest Community Forest Connection had when they began busing Priest River Elementary sixth graders to the site in 2007 for what has become the annual Forest Expo.

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