Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Bad Goat Forestry and Watershed Consulting LLC Internship by Jacob Seidel

"Associate's degrees are the best - I don't know why anyone goes further". Great advice from someone who left school just short of a PhD, and especially someone who is such a proponent of educating others. If I had a way of knowing and following Mark Vander Meer's advice, I wouldn't have come to UM and had the amazing experience of working with him and his crew sporadically over the last few months. Mark is the founder of Bad Goat Forestry and Watershed Consulting LLC. Besides the copious number of degrees Mark has accumulated, a good bit of his knowledge originated during his time working with Bud Moore, a local legend who, early on, trapped fur-bearing wildlife in the Bitterroot mountains and later became one of the first Forest Service rangers in the area. Bud also operated a portable timber mill on his property in the Swan valley, where he set a fine example for sustainable forestry practices. 

Both of Mark's businesses do a myriad of projects using the best management practices available. They're able to work on a variety of projects - everything from road restoration to timber framing and blacksmithing - because Mark and his coworkers are incredibly well-rounded in this field, and they are all willing to try or learn something new if it means that the outcome of a job will be of a higher quality.
One of the forward-thinking ideas being pursued by the city and enacted by Mark & Co. is the use of  poplar saplings as a method of water treatment. In a nutshell: instead of retrofitting an addition to the old water treatment plant to purify water with elevated levels of compounds like nitrogen and ammonium, this water will be used to grow saplings. These compounds act as a fertilizer for the poplar, which on the test plot grew up to eight feet (!) in a single season. The water re-enters the ground water system and the Clark Fork safe to consume, and the trees can be harvested later for pulp-wood or other purposes.

There are few activities that will test the constitution of your hand strength more-so than pruning poplar whips for eight hours a day. Unfortunately (fortunately, though?), I could only help sparingly. 12,000 whips. Sometimes trimming 20+ branches per whip. Brutal. But, there's hardly a better time to learn about your crew, formulate thoughts on Krakauer's new book with the university gracing the cover, or bask in the sunshine-turned-graupel. This was my first introduction to the so-called "Missoula migrant workforce". What a relief from the daily drubbings of mass-lectures, where I could finally feel like I was producing while still daydreaming and watching the clouds catch and bend rays of sunshine.

During one of the last accumulations of snowfall in the Missoula valley, we tried our hand at blacksmithing on a coal-fired forge. Mark began forging out of necessity. At his home in the Swan, it was usually cheaper and quicker to craft a replacement part for the tractor than to get one in Missoula. Christian (my fellow intern, friend, and W+C alum) and I had both been looking forward to this for awhile, and it didn't disappoint: after a brief introduction to how a forge works (you work the fire more than you work the iron), we both came away with wall hangers crafted from old railroad spikes. For me, there's nothing that beats that satisfaction of creating something that's both useful and aesthetically pleasing. The forge works beautifully, but Mark had a dilemma: coal burns dirty and he has an excess of wood from his business; what to do? Enter the wood-fired forge, which can run off wood or bark. Mark, Christian and I spent an afternoon building the second forge, and Mark put the finishing touches on it by ordering a custom muffler that directs air from the bellows to the forge body. What a beauty!

Our largest project thus far was a prescribed burn in the Rattlesnake valley at Steve Siebert and Jill Belsky's house. Both are currently professors at the University of Montana and they do the best they can to put into practice the science that they specialize in. When they first purchased their home, the steep hill that abutted their house could hardly be seen, choked by small pines and shrubs as a result of fire suppression techniques over the past one hundred years. Little by little, both the professors and Mark's crew thinned the small stand, taking care to not only reduce fuels, but also to create micro-habitats for flora & fauna and provide nutrient and water retention sources for the soil (among other things, Mark is one of the finest soil scientists around). After thinning, and especially after small sample plots of prescribed fire use, stunning wildflowers covered the hillslope below the larger pines and Douglas-fir. Projects like this are complex, especially in the WUI (wildland-urban interface), where a lack of fuels management and a propagated fear of fire has set the stage for dangerous and costly fires, but proactive and practical management can benefit many goals. Finding balance between the human aesthetic/use and biological/ecological needs is difficult, but I think catering to one extreme or the other often produces lackluster results. Was this burn a success? I think so: the stand is now in a more resilient/resistant state concerning many disturbances and is likely closer to it's historical stable state, the property (and adjacent properties) have a reduced risk of catastrophic fires, it still provides good habitat value while preserving aesthetics, and we got to play with drip torches for a day. Not too shabby.  

Mark is always tossing new projects and ideas our way, and in turn expects that we do the same. Before the term is over, we'll have tried our hands at tree pruning, timber framing, hand hewing and mechanically milling lumber, and any other random skill that piques our interest. Should we build a sauna? Sure. A solar dehydrator? Why not? I'm sure that most people look forward to finishing their internships (and school), but I'm not. Wilderness & Civilization and working with Mark have connected me to people, places and activities that have made me a more thoughtful, engaged and confident person. I came to UM to grow as a person, and experiences like this internship have been crucial to that. What value is a liberal arts education if the real life skills are dropped in favor of focusing on test scores or memorization skills? For me, this not only verifies the importance of the Wilderness & Civilization program, but also the importance of trying new experiences solely on the basis that it can provide you with new way of seeing and interacting with the world. 

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