CASCADE COUNTY — On a long and winding dirt road up into the high country on Sheep Creek Ranch, large swaths of trees burned by the 2021 Harris Mountain wildfire can still be seen.
The lightning-caused fire burned through almost all of the land on the ranch, which serves as a migration corridor for the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem and is a major source of income for landowner Don Harland and his family.
"Down low we didn't get as much damage but as it came up here it was crowning, meaning it was in the tops of the trees. The temperature, they tell me, was close to 2,000 degrees so as we went up higher and higher it pretty much sanitized everything," Harland said.
Harland recalled the fire as he stood in the high country with an expansive view of the fire-damaged landscape behind him.
"This area that we're looking at right now was just black. Everything was washing down into the creeks. It was disastrous," said Harland.
Harland is working with a company called Mast Reforestation to plant thousands of new trees, a project that started in 2022.
"Started out by mapping the site and developing a sophisticated reforestation prescription that took into account slope aspect, soils, native species, availability of native seeds," Mast Reforestation VP of Business Development Arnoud de Villegas explained.
He said the project has been a historic undertaking.
"We undertook a historic cone collection last year in partnership with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and the Bureau of Land Management that, really, in many ways is the first of it's kind in the western United States to partner on that collection and increase the seed supply quite substantially for the state of Montana," de Villegas said.
"So what we're trying to do here is skip the next 40-50 years and get trees in the ground so that we rehabilitate this forest and we give it a huge head start," said Harland.
On the road up to the high country, passing through the fire-damaged landscape, Montana Forest Consultants Consulting Forester Zachary Baschoor explained part of the project includes cutting down many of the burned trees.
"We methodically had multiple timber-falling crews come out and methodically fall trees adjacent to the slope for erosion control," said Baschoor.
Farther up the road, a tree-planting crew was returning from a day of planting.
"We're working through the rain on steep slopes, rocky soils to find the best planting spots for lodgepole pine seedlings," Mast Reforestation Director of Forest Carbon Development Lisa Gonzalez-Kramer.
The planting is taking place over two weeks with as many as 18,000 seedlings planted in one day.
"It's a lot of work. I've heard it be (equated to) running several marathons in terms of the caloric output," Gonzalez-Kramer said.
Over the next two years, douglas fir and ponderosa pine are expected to be planted.
"We come to a site like this one and see our seedlings in the ground and that's real validation that validation of our tireless efforts insuring that we have healthy, resilient forests for generations to come," said de Villegas.
"The payoff for us is getting to see this place reforested and, hopefully, being able to bring my grandkids out here one day and seeing trees and a forest that we played an integral part in restoring," said Baschoor.
"When you own land like this, you find that you're in love with it and it's your responsibility," said Harland. "You're the steward of this land so you want to take care of it just like you would your children or your family and you want to leave it better than when you found it or at least as good."
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