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Forest Service logs Roaring Lion timber

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HAMILTON, Mont. - It's been more than six months since fire raced through the Roaring Lion drainage southwest of Hamilton, burning 8,700 acres of National Forest and private land, as well as several houses.

Now crews have begin salvaging some of the fire-killed timber. To reduce threats of falling snags the Bitterroot National Forest is harvesting 45 acres of trees near Roaring Lion, Sawtooth and Ward Mountain trailheads. Those trailheads remain closed to the public.

The logs have been sold to Montana mills.

NBC Montana traveled to the area Thursday with Forest Service personnel. What we saw was a sharp contrast between the mountain draw, where snow shrouded the landscape in white, and the black of trees killed by fire.

A feller buncher was cutting the trees and piling them for a skidder to retrieve.

The trailheads are popular with hikers, campers and backcountry skiers.

"We want to get the trailhead open as quick as possible," said Darby/Sula District Ranger Eric Winthers. "But the safety of the public is our primary concern and the dead trees falling over."

Before the fire, timber sale administrator Jon Garlitz said most of the trees were healthy and green.

The Forest Service wanted to harvest them as quickly as possible.

"So that we don't have any deterioration of the wood," said Garlitz. "If the ponderosa pine were to stick around much longer it would start getting blue stain in it, making it less desirable."

The skidder also drags slash back to harvested areas to hold the soil and promote new growth.

Snow was falling in the area throughout the morning. That snow acts as a cushion to protect the soil.

Pointing to the feller buncher working below, Garlitz said, "his tracks are not touching the ground. For this project we need 10 inches of compact snow to make it happen."

The Douglas fir will be trucked to Tricon Timber in St. Regis. The larger diameter ponderosa pine will go to Pyramid Mountain Lumber in Seeley Lake.

In all it's about 100 truckloads.

Work is progressing well.

After the skidder dragged bundles of felled trees to the landing, the stroke boom de-limber processed the trees into logs.

Garlitz said in the next few years grasses, plants, shrubs, fire and pine seedlings will start replacing the once thick forest.

The Forest Service will replant if necessary.

Timber management assistant Ryan Hughes held up a pine cone and said the cone holds evidence of viable seeds that survived.

"Within hours of the flame front coming through," he said, "there were seeds raining down to the forest floor to provide the next generation."

But it will be a long time before Roaring Lion will see the likes of the giant ponderosa pine logs that are piled here.

Jon Garlitz measured one of them and estimated it was more than 300 years old.

That means it was a mature shade tree when Lewis and Clark explored the Bitterroot.

As the Forest Service logs this part of the National Forest, other private landowners are also logging their land.

Some have already completed salvaging, including one property where it's evident that a house was destroyed in one of the Bitterroot's worst fires in memory.

The salvage project is expected to continue through February.

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