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The West is on fire. We grieve for the loss of life, property and disruption this has on individuals, communities and our environment. Fire, nonetheless, is a natural ecological process and plays an important role in maintaining healthy natural resources. The fires of 2020 are at a new scale and force. Widespread wildfires are difficult — or impossible — for managers, firefighters and landowners to control. Understanding the history and circumstances that have brought us the trend of longer fire seasons and larger fires, is complicated.

We did not arrive in 2020 in an instant. A century of well-intentioned, but often misguided land management has cumulative impacts. Fire suppression, grazing management, timber harvest, burning fossil fuel, modern human settlement patterns and drought have contributed to the conditions we have today. None of these factors are easily remedied, and none can happen at a scale that will make 2021 dramatically different.

In the news we hear disagreements on the cause of the 2020 fires. When dealing with complexity we are not surprised to find differences of opinion. What we can agree on is when we act as neighbors, coming together for good stewardship of Southwest Montana’s land, water and wildlife, we are more resilient when fire comes to our community.

Southwest Montana has and always will have wildfires, but when we look closely, we find that relatively recent changes in our grasslands and shrublands are linked to fire behavior. Landowners, land managers and scientists have documented the expansion of trees over the past 100 years (notably two conifers: juniper and Douglas fir) into grasslands and shrublands. The expansion of conifers has changed fire behavior and created conditions for larger, hotter fires. Ultimately, these changes bring the potential for more destructive impacts on our communities.

Conifer removal and prescribed burns are effective strategies to restore a healthy balance of forest, sagebrush and grasslands. On public and private lands, restoration projects are underway to reach a more natural balance of forest, grassland and shrubland habitats by removing the intruding fir and juniper. Partnerships between private landowners, public land managers and community and conservation organizations are implementing a diverse host of restoration projects.

These projects will protect property from wildfire, improve range conditions, protect clean water and provide better habitat for elk, mule deer and a wide range of wildlife. The approach will also make Southwest Montana family ranches and communities stronger, while simultaneously reducing the potential of catastrophic wildfire and supporting our outdoor traditions.

These restoration projects are happening throughout Southwest Montana and you may not initially recognize the removal of trees as restoration. You might see heavy equipment working, people with chainsaws and drip torches and piles of cut fir and juniper, and smoke from prescribed fires. These are the tools necessary to keep a diversity of habitats healthy. Ranchers, land management agencies, sportsmen’s groups and conservation organizations are working together to complete this important work. As a bonus, this effort is creating jobs during uncertain economic times.

We breathe a collective sigh of relief when homes are saved from wildfire, and the snow comes and clears the air of smoke. We reach out and help our fellow community members that have been affected, and we support one another as we recover from disaster. We are Montanans, it is what we do. We also care deeply for the land and all that it provides for us. We care and so we act to restore.

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Darcie Warden is a member of the Gravelly Landscape Collaborative, a diverse group of citizens and stakeholders who value the Gravelly area for its rich fish and wildlife habitat, natural resources, opportunities for recreation and clean water. Learn more at www.gravellylandscapecollaborative.org