Montana Forests

Forests Should Be For Everyone

Photo of family by a lake in the forest

The national forests belong to all of our nation’s citizens and are managed by the United States Forest Service. The harvesting of trees to meet citizens’ daily needs is only one of the many uses of our forests. The forests also provide gas, oil, and hard core minerals. Wildlife and livestock rely on the forest lands for grazing. The national forests are for our use for camping, hiking, biking, snowmobiIing, hunting, fishing, and skiing. 93% of recreation takes place on these forest lands that serve a variety of uses. Through proper management to ensure healthy forests, we can all share in the beauty and resources of our forests.

Forests cover about one-fourth of Montana’s land area, some 22.5 million acres, or about one-fourth of the state’s total land area. This 22.5 million acre land base is divided about equally between forests east and west of the Continental Divide. Because of the influence of moist air masses that flow in from the Pacific ocean, forests west of the Divide contain many more tree species than are found in forests in Eastern Montana. Ponderosa Pine dominates "the east side," but "west side" forests include larch, lodgepole, Douglas-fir, grand fir, spruce, western hemlock and western red cedar.

About 96.5% of the land forested in the early 1600’s is still forested today.

The Role of Climate in Montana’s Forests

Climate is also a significant natural force in Montana forests. West of the Continental Divide, forests are cooler and more moist, a result of the influence of the Pacific Coast weather patterns. Firs, lodgepole, larch and hemlock are the dominant tree species. East of the Divide, the species composition is different, in part a result of continental climatic conditions. Forests are drier, hotter and more open. Ponderosa pine is the dominant tree species. Eventually, eastern Montana forests give way to range land, in much the same manner as they do in parts of eastern Oregon and Washington.

Commercial Timberland Ownership

Montana’s 18,981,723 acres of non-reserved commercial timberland is divided between public and private ownerships. The public owns 12,945,591 acres, and another 6,036,132 are privately owned.

Montana’s 22.5 million-acre forestland base includes 22.4 million acres of timberland. 85% of Montana’s timberland base is held in unreserved classifications, meaning it is available for harvest.  About 60% of unreserved timber-some 11.4 million acres-is held in national forests.

"Timberland, non-reserved" is defined as land available for harvest, and capable of growing at least 20 cubic feet of wood per acre per year. Montana west of the Continental Divide contains some of the most productive forestland in the nation. More than 40% has the potential to produce more than 85 cubic feet per acre per year, and more than 60% is capable of growing between 50 and 119 cubic feet per acre per year.

"Timberland, reserved" is forestland that would otherwise be classified as timberland, except that it has been withdrawn from timber utilization by statute or administrative regulation. It is most likely located within wilderness areas or national parks, and is prized for its natural beauty, recreational value or historic importance.

Forest products manufacturers in western Montana get more than 35% of their saw timber from public forestlands, while manufacturers east of the Continental Divide get most of their timber from private forest landowners.

Timber harvesting and mineral leases on Montana state trust lands also generate income for schools across the state. Over the past five years, trust land management activities have returned an average $26.3 million per year to school trusts. These lands span more than 6.3 million acres, and include 5.8 million acres granted to the state by Congress, for school support, in 1889. The Department of State Lands manages timber, surface and mineral resources on these lands, for the sole benefit of the common schools and endowed institutions of Montana.

Thirty-four Montana counties receive a share of the revenue derived from the harvest of timber held in Montana national forests. Fiscal 1995 receipts totaled $10,555,715. Receipts represent 25% of the total dollar value of timber harvested from national forests in Montana. By law, counties must divide receipts equally between their county school and road budgets. The federal government does not pay property taxes to counties in which its national forestlands are located so, in principle, harvest receipts are payments in lieu of property taxes. Receipts vary from year to year as a function of the amount of timber harvested; but the trend is downward, as the federal government de-emphasizes harvesting and timber management in national forests. Smaller portions of total receipts come from fees collected for grazing, mineral development, recreation and land use.