By JULIA GOODHART
After returning from our week in the Mission Valley, the aspen trees beginning to flutter in yellows and golds, the L&L students continued their exploration of the Swan Valley’s wetlands. In the photo below, Andrea is gesturing to the boundary of the wetland - where the cottonwoods, aspens, and other ‘upland’ vegetation begin. She and the students are standing in a vernal pool - a wetland that is full of water for only part of the year. We learned that the Swan Valley is home to an extremely rare plant species, water howellia (Howellia aquatilis), that is dependent on these unique conditions. The plant grows in the spring, submerged in water, but the seeds require air to germinate, which occurs when the water table recedes and the pool dries in the fall!!
Next, we traveled to a fen, a type of peatland. This means there is an accumulation of undecayed or only partially decayed plants and organic matter. Due to anaerobic conditions, the rate of decomposition is slower than the rate of plant growth, so layers of vegetation just sort of pile atop one another.
We step carefully upon the sphagnum mosses of the fen, the fabric of vegetation elastic and bouncy like a great trampoline. With our nets, we sifted numerous dragonfly nymphs, a few giant water bugs, and predaceous diving beetles from patches of open water!
We additionally explored the processes for wetland restoration on private lands. Above, the students consider an Agri-Drain water level control structure (which is just out of the frame, below Andrea). Since draining wetlands and transforming them into producing hayfields was one way to “prove up” on your land during the homesteading era, many of the valley’s larger wetlands have been drained. The landowners of this property were no longer using the meadow for hay production, so they worked with Swan Valley Connections to install a small dam-like structure which stops water from flowing down the manmade ditch that drained the wetland behind the group.
Adjustable to permit more or less water through, and therefore to lower or raise the water level in the wetland, the control structure is not a permanent solution, which allows for future flexibility. Meanwhile, the wildlife enjoy the benefits of this water source - we stared in awe as four enormous sandhill cranes erupted from the water as we walked over! Restoring wetlands is also a great way to help fight invasive species like reed canary grass, which dies if its roots are submerged.
In our pursuit to understand stream management with respect to roads, we all climbed through the culvert shown in the photo above! It took some negotiating for some of the hip-wader people, to avoid filling our waders with water, but we were mostly successful.
We have spoken a lot about culverts over the semester while discussing the strategies for conserving and restoring stream ecosystems while maintaining our road access. Culverts are tough because many were historically designed only for the passage of water, when in reality, streams also transport sediment, woody debris, fish, amphibians, leaves, macroinvertebrates, and more! Culverts also aren’t really compatible with the boom-and-bust streamflow the mountainous west experiences - in the spring, the culvert acts as a firehose and causes the erosion that can be seen in the photo above.
Culverts can inhibit fish migratory pathways as well as movement of semi-aquatic terrestrial creatures, and require maintenance to keep them functioning; they can get clogged by the buildup of wood material that cannot fit through the opening. Bridges and larger half-culvert structures that allow the stream bed and floodplain to remain continuous are great solutions, but can be expensive. We’ve seen some great examples of successful culvert replacement projects, though, which is encouraging as we move forward!
We switched gears a bit and spent some time learning about collaborative forest management strategies, and were even able to attend a meeting of the Southwestern Crown Collaborative, a group of local and regional stakeholders that work in conjunction with the Forest Service to help design and complete restoration-oriented projects as well as wildlife and vegetation monitoring.
We learned that collaboration is difficult, and that there are many approaches toward these collaborative entities. It can be frustrating and slow to reach consensus among many stakeholders, who all have varying interests and beliefs. Overall, it seems like getting to know the folks across the aisle and involving groups that have a serious interest or stake in a project is an important step toward longer-term relationships and more inclusive management strategies.
Later in the week, the students headed north for an always-anticipated adventure during the semester, a day with Ben, Roy, and Joy Thompson at RBM Lumber!
Ben and his father Malcolm do most of the logging when they’re out on a project, and describe their practice as observational forestry - they strive to mimic natural processes, emphasize long term forest health, preserve wildlife and old growth timber, and think as much about what they’re leaving as what they’re taking. They’re humble, gracious, and patient answering our questions and explaining their processes.
In the photo above, Ben discusses the growth patterns of several Montana tree species, and how that translates to timber value - in an experiment he conducted, the amount of board feet increased nearly exponentially after a tree’s early years.
After a few hours in the woods, we headed up to Columbia Falls where their mill is located. Ben and his brother Roy constructed most of the machinery themselves. RBM Lumber specializes in value-added production - they celebrate and utilize wood that was traditionally deemed undesirable or unusable, timber with knots or holes, or stained blue as a result of fungus. Wood with character.
Roy and Ben guided us through the entirety of the mill, from where the logs are unloaded and first processed, following the maze of machinery within the mill itself, all the way to the flooring and door shops where some of their products are finished. They even grind up their scraps and shavings to produce wood pellets, which can be used in a pellet heating system. Because of this addition to the mill, there is essentially no ‘waste’ from the milling process! We were able to take a peek into the exercise room, also, where employees can improve body strength and fitness as part of the work day. Most of the jobs at RBM are extremely physical, and this resource is an awesome way to prevent injuries and support employees. We were amazed at their consideration and attention to detail in every aspect of the business, especially with how employees are valued.
Ben and his wife, Joy, who is very active in the management of the business, were kind enough to host us for dinner at the end of our day. It was wonderful to crowd into their living room, nestled on carpet and couches, sharing stories and simply trying to clarify our thoughts. We had no shortage of words to say on the hour and a half drive home, either. During the Landscape & Livelihood semester, we are constantly trying to understand the relationship between the health and economic vibrancy of human communities, and the health of the surrounding natural lands, and it is invigorating to visit folks like the Thompsons, who seem to have to found a way to encourage the vitality of both. We are so grateful to spend time and learn from them.
Days are full and weeks fly by, somehow, and the students begin working on individual projects in the coming week. Individual project presentations will be Sunday, October 30th, from 11 am - 2 pm in the Swan Valley Community Hall!