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Ashland group helps replant trees near Yellowstone

With the help of a 10-mule-and-horse pack team, planters from Ashland Saturday finished scattering 120,000 Douglas fir seedlings across 266 acres of forestland burned in a nearly 70,000-acre wildfire four years ago outside Yellowstone National Park.

"The call to replant was made almost initially after the fire, in the fall of 2008," said Jason Brey, a silviculturist for Wyoming's Shoshone National Forest east of Yellowstone.

The plantings didn't start until this year because the project had to undergo a National Environmental Policy Act analysis and because it takes at least two years to grow seeds into 8-inch-tall seedlings in the forest's nursery, Brey said.

Ten people from Summit Forests Inc. of Ashland planted the trees about 9 feet apart in the shade, said Brey. It took the crew, which had to work in mostly rugged terrain, nine days to complete.

Horses and mules helped the foresters pack in about 250 boxes of trees to the remote project area, said Brey.

The overall cost of the project was about $75,000, he said.

"We plant trees all over the place," said Scott Nelson, president of Summit Forests. "We don't do it as much anymore. There isn't as much federal planting happening. "… Most of it is replanting after a wildfire, because they aren't harvesting as many trees."

Nelson said Summit crews have replanted for forests in New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Washington and Wyoming, among others. Many of those jobs over the last three decades required the planting of more than a million trees, he said.

Summit is on a multiyear, $27,000 contract with the Shoshone National Forest, which means its crews can be called back to do additional planting until 2014, said Nelson.

Brey said the seeds used to replant the Shoshone project came from similar areas of elevation and stand configuration within the forest.

Like all national forests, the Shoshone has seed lots scattered within its boundaries. The seeds for this project were collected from 20 separate trees within four lots, said Brey.

Exceptionally healthy trees are identified within the seed lots to pull replanting seeds from, he said. Some of the seeds sown for the project date back to 1992, while others were pulled as recent as 2008.

Those sorts of steps are taken to ensure the forest stands that rise after the planting have "appropriate variety in the genetic material," said Brey.

Shoshone forester Amy Haas told the Billings Gazette that natural regeneration in the Gunbarrel Creek drainage, where planting began, was poor because the fire burned too hot there.

She said spruce, pine, and Douglas fir made up the forest stands before the fire, but only fir was being replanted because it has a better chance of regenerating.

The 67,000-acre Gunbarrel fire started west of the project area, in the North Absaroka Wilderness, and swept across the dry Wyoming landscape in summer 2008. Much of it will remain as it is, Brey said.

"The fire did some good things, in that it created a lot of winter range habitat for elk and big horn sheep," said Brey. "We didn't want that to go away by planting trees across all of those areas."

The forest won't replant in the wilderness area, he said. The responsibility of stand regeneration in the vast majority of wilderness areas burned in wildfires across the U.S. is left for Mother Nature to take care of.

Only in rare circumstances are forests allowed to replant in wilderness areas — to correct conditions caused by human activity, or for emergency circumstances where there is a lack of vegetation, Brey said.

"So that left us with that relatively small chunk."

Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-499-1470 or email swheeler@dailytidings.com