A paradoxical plan to save western larch in the Flathead 

In response to public concerns expressed earlier this spring, the Flathead National Forest has refined a proposal to fell 270 western larch over the next 10 years. But those changes might not be enough to appease environmentalists with the Kalispell-based Swan View Coalition.

The Flathead's revised proposal—up for public comment until early July—now calls for felling a maximum of 150 trees in order to harvest cones for reforestation efforts. Silviculturist Melissa Jenkins says the project is particularly important because the district's western larch seed lot is running dangerously low. And since larch cone crops are notoriously finicky, with heavy crops occurring only once every seven to 14 years, the Forest Service needs to act quickly.

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"We have wildfires and harvested areas that we need to reforest," Jenkins says. "That species is an important component of what we need to put back."

The Swan View Coalition's initial opposition to the project stemmed from complaints against cutting down the trees. The group pressed Flathead officials to instead use less invasive measures of cone collection, such as climbing the larches or shooting cones down. Jenkins explains that neither of these alternatives were solid options given safety concerns and limited harvest opportunities. Larches afford only a short window—two to three weeks—to collect ripe cones.

The proposal calls for collecting nearly 50 bushels of larch cones.

"It takes 4,000 of those cones to make a bushel," Jenkins says. "Even when we fell them, it takes a long, long time to pick a bushel of cones. So to do it while you're up in the air, it's extremely difficult and time-consuming."

Jenkins lists a host of additional sensitivities. Cones must be collected at a variety of elevations and from a variety of individual stands. There are geographic and environmental limitations, too. Collection sites can't fall within wilderness areas and can't conflict with endangered or sensitive wildlife species.

But the latest version of the proposal seems to meet most of the demands of local environmentalistsexcept for the renewed call for cutting. The Flathead only plans to remove one larch tree per acre. Wherever possible, activity will only take place in ongoing timber sales, previously identified collection areas and previously harvested stands.

"We're talking 50 to 150 trees over a 10-year period," Jenkins says. If the timing is right and the crop is good, she adds, even 50 trees might be on the high end.

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