Montana CDs play critical role in wildfire recovery

By Laura Demmel

Wildfires continue to take their toll across the West, sweeping through forests, grasslands, and communities. Some 80 wildfires in the United States have burned over 942,000 acres already this fire session. Nearly half of those acres are in Montana. The great loss to landowners in land and assets, as well as the amount of assistance needed to recover, can be overwhelming. This holds too true for many producers affected by the Lodgepole Complex Fire in Montana, which burned over 270,000 acres in July and early August this year.

Dean Rogge’s view of the fire from atop his farming equipment.

A long list of cooperative partners are helping communities in and around Jordan, Montana, recover from wildfires. Among them are NRCS, the U.S. Farm Service Agency, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (MDNRC), the Missouri River Conservation Districts Council, the Musselshell Watershed Coalition, local Extension offices, and the Petroleum County Conservation District – with the Garfield Conservation District leading the effort.

“If the conservation districts were not there to take the lead, I’m not sure who would have facilitated such inter-agency meetings, which brought producers together with those who were able to offer them immediate assistance,” said Lisa Coverdale, the NRCS state conservationist for Montana.

The most immediate need of area ranchers was finding alternative ground for grazing. Thanks to the relationship built between the Garfield County Conservation District and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) over the years, FWS quickly opened the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge (CMR) for emergency grazing relief until November 1, ensuring local ranchers wouldn’t be forced to sell their livestock early at discounted prices.

Members of the interagency group that worked with affected landowners on a brief tour before district-hosted informational meetings.

There is a long history of grazing on the CMR, and livestock grazing is a tool used to manage wildlife habitat. “On a landscape scale, the CMR prescriptive grazing will provide the needed relief to the burn area, when the rains come to create a new green,” said Dean Rogge, chair of the Garfield County Conservation District. “One thing that is certain for producers in the Lodgepole Complex is that the support of communities, individuals, agencies, and other groups has been swift and overwhelming. We are thankful for all who contributed during and after the fire.”

The coordination between agencies continues today with conservation districts playing a leadership role. Together, the partners are assisting producers through the sharing of resources, boosting access to emergency funding, and offering educational workshops. Through the MDNRC, the Montana legislature committed $75,000 to the Garfield County Conservation District in emergency funding to assist in these recovery efforts, which will help fill in the gaps where existing budgets and grants can’t cover the needs. Some of the assistance offered for producers includes Environmental Quality Incentive Program funds.

NACD has developed a Community Wildfire Desk Guide and Toolkit, which can help conservation districts and individuals best support their communities before, during, and after a fire. The guide includes examples of what conservation districts have done to help with fire prevention and recovery, as well as provide a list of other educational resources. Additionally, NACD published a special report on what other conservation districts have done to maintain forest health and prepare districts for wildfires.

Laura Demmel is NACD’s Northern Plains representative and the lead staff member on Resource Stewardship Evaluation. Laura can be reached by email at laura-demmel@nacdnet.org.

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