Northern Cheyenne contend with the complexities of wildfire

This story was published in the Billings Gazette.

The Northern Cheyenne Tribe’s 30-person planting crew has been in the Black Springs burn this April. Each planter carries a tree bag, hoisting a couple hundred ponderosa pine seedlings on each hip. They walk in lines, slamming hodads into the charred ground, dropping seedlings into the holes, and then covering the roots with soil. On a good day, a single crewmember can plant more than 1,000 baby pines.

It’s a spring ritual on this wildfire-prone reservation in southeastern Montana—perpetual planting to sustain the tree stands that account for a significant portion of the tribe’s revenue.

“It’s timber sales and grazing,” Forestry Director Terry Spang, Sr. says in summarizing the tribe’s economy.

But however quickly the crews plant ponderosas, they can’t keep pace with wildfire. Last summer’s fires scorched more than 60,000 acres of forest and grassland, or about 14 percent of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. Around 50,000 acres burned on the neighboring Crow Reservation. Fires on and surrounding the reservations covered a total of 430,000 acres. Statewide, 1.2 million acres burned—Montana’s biggest fire season since 1910.

Large wildfires in southeastern Montana in 2012

Large wildfires in southeastern Montana in 2012 — Matt Nordhagen

For the Northern Cheyenne, the immediate threat was to life and property; the fires torched homes and forced evacuations in Ashland and Lame Deer. Lee Old Bear, a member of the Northern Cheyenne fire management team, recalls that the “fire spread so fast, just happened in the blink of an eye,” threatening the lives of his personnel. Short-handed crews and short budgets made dealing with the fires that much more difficult.

“When the state has hundreds of thousands of dollars to work with, the tribe has pennies,” says Mark Roundstone, who works in the Northern Cheyenne Natural Resources Department.

Forester Alonzo Terry Spang, of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, says the burned timber will sell for perhaps half the value it otherwise would. Replanting costs could be upwards of $1 million. Grazing leases bring in more revenue than timber sales, and that income is threatened, too, as ranchers find themselves searching for unburned pastures.

The timber and range are essential to the tribal economy, but sustaining them is difficult considering the complexities of fire ecology.

“Those trees shouldn’t be there,” says Ron Wakimoto, a professor and researcher at the University of Montana Fire Lab, referring to the area’s historical ecology. Though those trees “became a tribal resource—and they’re an important tribal resource.”

Grasslands burn fast, and recover quickly, too. Overgrazing can hinder that recovery, which is why the tribe is limiting grazing on certain lands to give the grasses time to grow back.

But the trees, not being part of the historic ecosystem, complicate the ecology. In other forests periodic burns are beneficial, but the tribe’s pine stands—fuel that typically isn’t found on a prairie—only add fuel to the flames, Wakimoto says.

Whether last summer’s flames were historically significant depend on how far back one looks. Fire ecologist Carl Seielstad, of the National Center for Landscape Fire Analysis at the University of Montana, says “human perception is mismatched with ecological processes,” which, when it comes to fire, may cycle over decades or centuries—or longer. “We don’t see them because we don’t live long enough to see them,” he says.

Seielstad and other researchers think the fire cycle is heading into a more intense period, during which larger files will be more common. That’s without factoring in the effects of climate change.

“The future of fire needs to accommodate larger fires and fires that connect over larger landscapes,” Seielstad says. That’s easier said than done, he acknowledges, considering fire is inevitably “tied up with human values.”

But it’s what the Northern Cheyenne face: reconciling changing ecological and economic realities.

“We need to get together more as a team—your timber sales, your fire, your fuels,” says Terry Spang, Sr., the tribe’s forestry director. “We need to come up with a plan.”

That planning is just now underway. Another fire season will soon be as well.