At Spotted Bear, a busy summer lies ahead for new ranger

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Scott Snelson is the new Spotted Bear District Ranger.

New District Ranger Scott Snelson and his team at Spotted Bear promise to have a busy spring and summer cleaning up after last year’s big wildfire season.

Just over 80,000 acres burned on the district last summer, about 55,000 of it from the Rice Ridge Fire, near Seeley Lake. As such, about 65 miles of trails were impacted by the blazes, including key routes in Youngs and Strawberry creeks, noted Rich Owens, wilderness trails and river program manager for the district.

The district received more than $200,000 in Forest Service Burned Area Emergency Response Funding to clear trails and control weeds this summer in the fire areas.

That will allow them to put more boots on the ground, with about 16 additional trail crew workers as well as 20 Montana Conservation Corps personnel.

The district will try to get staff in there as soon as they can get across the streams, hopefully sometime in May, Owens noted.

Youngs is a major route through the South Fork and Strawberry Creek is part of the Continental Divide Trail. Both areas see a lot of stock and foot traffic in the summer months.

All told, the district has a whopping 1,100 miles of trails and is more than 1 million acres in size — it’s bigger than Glacier National Park and has 400 more miles of trails. Of that 1 million acres, about 850,000 acres of it are in the Bob Marshall Wilderness complex. They don’t cut out trails with chainsaws either. In the wilderness, it’s all axes, handsaws and cross-cut saws. No motorized use allowed. Last summer’s fires burned some areas that have burned before, noted fire management officer Seth Carbonari. Of the 80,000 acres that burned, a full 21,000 acres burned a second time.

A second burn helps clean up some of the downed and dead fuels in the woods, he noted.

Rice Ridge, for example, burned back into the old Railey Fire burn of 2007. Portions of the Cardinal Peak and Fool Creek fires from years past burned a second time as well.

Since 1981, about 669,523 acres have not seen any fire, 301,814 acres have burned at least once, 61,320 have burned twice, and 4,398 have burned three times.

All of that fire means charcoal in the soil, Snelson noted. A single teaspoon of charcoal has the surface area of a basketball court, he said. Charcoal helps the soil in a variety of different ways, from facilitating drainage and nutrients, to aeration.

It can stay in the dirt for hundreds of years. It’s of great importance to the health of ecosystem, he noted.

Snelson’s tenure at Spotted Bear marks a full circle to his career.

Snelson spent 16 years in Montana, where he earned both his bachelor and master of science degrees from Montana State University in biological sciences. Early in his career he worked as a U.S. Forest Service trail-crew foreman in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, out of Spotted Bear and Big Prairie, and as a firefighter.

He met his wife, Heidi, while working in the Bob.

They have two grown daughters, one a career Forest Service employee.

Snelson addressed the sexual harassment scandal that’s rocked the upper echelon of the agency recently, noting there would be no tolerance at the local level.

“We’re absolutely committed to making out workplace safe and great place to work for a wide diversity of folks,” he said. “It’s vital to me to have a safe working environment.”

Snelson’s last post was as the deputy forest supervisor for the 3.4 million-acre Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest near Dillon. He took the over the reins of the Spotted Bear District in December after longtime ranger Deb Mucklow-Starling retired last year.

He noted that overall, the district is seeing tight budgets. Without the emergency fire funding, the recreational budget is one of the leanest in decades, even though more people are visiting, particularly in the popular river corridors.

Volunteerism is a key part of making the visitor experience a success, he noted. The district relies on a host of volunteer groups to pitch in, including the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation, Backcountry Horsemen groups and the Montana Pilot’s Association, to name just a few.

“They’re totally integral to our program and they’re our best advocates,” Snelson said. “They’re part and parcel to our operation. That’s why we’re able to get done what we do.”

Last year, for example, the Bob Marshall Wilderness foundation did 41 projects across the wilderness. This year it will do 40, including funding seven interns that will work the summer with Forest Service crews, said director Carol Treadwell.

Last year, the Foundation provided about $340,000 worth of volunteer labor in the Bob, cleared 180 miles of trail and pulled 20 acres of weeds, Treadwell said.

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