State quietly proceeds with Sula logging 

State foresters are hoping to see loggers at work this month harvesting 300,000 board feet of timber in the Sula State Forest south east of Darby.

The small timber sale is hampered by two bad combinations, says Mark Lewing, Hamilton unit manager for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC), which is administering the sale. Timber of questionable quality and small diameter is being offered for sale. Despite those drawbacks, Lewing says, he expects the sale will attract some bidders.

The sale is spread over 580 acres on seven sections on the east side of the state forest. That area was not hit hard by the fires of 2000, but a swarm of bark beetles that followed is killing the trees.

“After the fires the [bark beetle] problem was just exacerbated,” Lewing says. “It didn’t burn severely, but it crept around and burned root systems.”

Mountain pine beetles often attack stands of trees that have been stressed by forest fires. They girdle the bark and eat the cambium layer beneath. Affected trees that appear green and healthy on the outside can be dying from the inside.

Though not all foresters are convinced that post-fire bark beetle infestations pose a dire threat to the health of the forest, Lewing says the insects have gotten out of hand in that section of the forest. “I thought it was overrated, too,” he says of the harm beetles can wreak on forests. “But they were there before the fires and now they’ve just been able to build up and attack trees that are stressed.”

The public comment period on the sale ended Jan. 2, just days after it began. Lewing acknowledges that such an abbreviated comment period may upset some, but he points out that the sale is small and that logging must come to an end by spring when the frozen ground thaws and soil damage from heavy equipment would be worse.

Money raised by logging on state lands goes into a school trust. Steve Kamps, a DNRC forest management specialist, says the proposal is more a forestry project than a money-making sale. But state lands are mandated to make money for the state’s schools, regardless of how little they earn.

In this case, says Kamps, schools stand to make about $1,800 from the timber harvest. Another $8,700 will go toward forest improvement projects.

It’s not much, Kamps admits, but it beats paying someone to clear the forest of beetle-killed trees. “I was just happy we didn’t have to pay for the improvements we had to make.”

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