The tree that looks like an elk: History of Douglas fir pervades Missoula

Missoulians often mistake Douglas fir trees for elk a fact that would amuse David Douglas to no end.

Had he made it to the Missoula Valley in Montana during his botanical explorations in the 1820s, the elk on Mount Jumbo would have no Douglas fir saplings to mingle with. Salish Indians regularly burned the mountainsides to deny ambush cover to Blackfeet Indians as they traveled through the vicinity. The only black spots in the winter range would be foraging ungulates, not invading evergreens.

Today, the tree that bears Douglas’ name frequently winds up in the news. It’s one of the main targets in the Lolo National Forest’s Marshall Woods project in the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area. It’s also been targeted by Missoula Parks and Recreation forestry management efforts.

Ponderosa pine trees tend to shed their lower branches as they mature, and their bark has a flaky, puzzle-piece formation. Those bark flakes shed off during forest fires, protecting the core of the pine and making it harder for the flames to reach the higher branches. In contrast, Douglas fir torches easily. But it grows back much faster than Ponderosa or larch.

Lolo forest silviculturalists made the same observation in their plans to thin forest areas and meadows along Rattlesnake Creek north of Missoula. Douglas fir saplings have mixed with aspen stands and encroached on old homestead sites. The Marshall Woods project proposes extensive thinning along the creek corridor.

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