Happy the man to whom every tree is a friend.

~ John Muir

Peeking out any window at The Ranch at Rock Creek you might see a herd of elk migrating, a Northern Pygmy owl on the hunt or a badger on the way to his burrow. We don’t make the views, but we know how to appreciate them. We do that on Instagram every day, but today we’re sharing a view behind-the-scenes of our stewardship efforts that can’t be encapsulated in minutes or soundbites.

Trapper Canvas Cabin sits next to Rock Creek, secluded within one of our forests.

In concert with over 30 sustainability initiatives, including eliminating single-use plastics, river cleanups and fish screens to protect our trout populations, our ongoing forest management project will be measured in years and generations.

The Ranch has always had a long-term approach. It took Jim Manley 20 years to find this ranch and we are invested in preserving the land and improving it. As we embark on our second decade earning the Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star award, we are always balancing excellence in service with excellence in stewardship.

~ General Manager Jeremy Belnap

Three years ago, The Ranch hired Zachary Bashoor and his company, Montana Forest Consultants, to embark on a responsible forestry project to improve the health of our forests and wildlife habitats over the course of five or more years.

Montana Forest Consultants removing trees on a peak overlooking the Rock Creek valley.

Bashoor is a Forest and Environmental Consultant whose formal education is in Forest Resource Management, Wildland Fire Science, Natural Resource Leadership, as a product of Montana State University Extension and the College of Forestry at the University of Montana. He also annually pursues continuing education to maintain certifications and accreditation required for his work. In the past 10 years, he has logged 5,000 hours on the fireline as a firefighter for the US Forest Service and as a private contractor. His passion is in helping create healthy and sustainable relationships between people and the land surrounding them by engaging with landowners, recreationalists, and community members about the socio-ecological benefits that Montana’s forests provide.

My overarching objective is to help people create healthy and sustainable relationships with the land surrounding them. The most rewarding part of my work is knowing that we are not just helping people to complete a project that also has benefits to neighbors and surrounding communities, but are guiding landowners through a journey of stewardship that can be passed down for generations.

~ Zachary Bashoor

A view of the Pintler Mountains from a Ranch peak.

Toward that goal, this Earth Day he’s helping us to share the importance of his work at The Ranch at Rock Creek.

Five Forest Goals in Five+ Years

1. Reducing High Severity Wildfire Risk

Wildfire is a natural ecological process with many benefits to the ecosystem. Montana forests have historically adapted with the presence of wildfire over time; however, a century of human intervention, such as fire suppression policies and over-harvesting select species, have reduced the variability of species and caused overabundance of certain species. This increases the likelihood of extreme wildfire conditions that are can sterilize soil due to extreme heat, increase erosion levels and provide less space for species to regenerate after fires.

Montana Forest Consultants have a history of fighting wildfires directly and indirectly through sustainable forestry.

Overcrowded forests with fewer species are also allowing for insects to spread more easily across trees already stressed from the added competition, drought, and other disturbances, resulting in higher mortality rates.

2. Creating Safer Conditions

This forestry project creates safer corridors for guest and staff recreation as well as safer wildfire conditions. Roads and trails are also being improved for safer travel and better drainage.

Group hiking on a trail

Hiking through the forests during a Master Naturalist class is one of the best ways to unplug and enjoy nature at The Ranch.

Dead trees, also known as “snags,” are removed around roads and trails for safer land use. However, dead trees are also important to The Ranch’s ecosystem. While they are removed if they pose a health risk to the forest, moderate quantities provide nesting cavities for birds, harbor native insects and provide nutrient cycling of biomass material, which can aid in keeping this area one of the most diverse ecosystems in the lower 48 states.

3. Making a More Resilient Forest

Different forests and areas require different management techniques. According to Bashoor, the key to truly maintaining a “healthy forest” across a landscape is to promote biodiversity in forest stand structure.

An ecosystem is akin to a community, a community needs diverse resources and infrastructure to thrive, so it is important to maintain and promote a variety of conditions across a landscape.

~ Zachary Bashoor

Forestry crews work with big machinery when the ground is frozen to reduce damage to the soil and native species.

At The Ranch, Bashoor’s team worked with long-term management to analyze and provide “prescriptions” for smaller segments of the forest, providing a mosaic of different treatments on the landscape. Some areas are treated to promote resilience to insects, some to reduce wildfire risk, some to promote habitat for various species, some for recreational use, and others to promote new growth and bolster carbon sequestration. The landscape then naturally has areas with different species and different aged trees at various densities. There is no “one size fits all” approach.

4. Improving Wildlife Habitat

Many species of wildlife prefer differing types of habitat. For instance, elk prefer open grassy areas that provide foraging and travel with small, dense forest thickets nearby to bed during the day, while Canada Lynx prefer very dense forest for cover and where their prey (mostly snowshoe hares) live.

A large herd of elk crossing The Ranch at Rock Creek’s grasslands. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Lanier Photography.

An environmental analysis is essential to determining which habitats should be prioritized. At The Ranch, the only threatened or endangered species in the area is the Bull Trout, so utmost care is taken to ensure sediment deposition and water quality is considered in any management decision. Our 6,600 acres are prime historic elk harboring ground, so rangeland (grass and sage parks) for winter foraging and wetlands (aspen stands) for bedding grounds are being improved by removing invasive conifers and controlling noxious weeds and other competitive vegetation.

An elk herd photographed by one of The Ranch’s trail cameras. Photo courtesy of Activities Manager Phil Dobesh.

Promoting biodiversity on the landscape ensures that the needs of multiple species are being met by providing different habitat types.

5. Improving Carbon Sequestration

Carbon sequestration is the capture and storage of atmospheric greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. When carbon is stored, it is not emitted into the atmosphere and will reduce the greenhouse effect and lessen impacts of climate change.

Carbon sequestration is not necessarily a function of the number of trees in a forest, it is a function of growth. Trees are also not the only part of the forest ecosystem that sequesters carbon. Shrubs and forbs, grasses and soils all sequester carbon.

~ Zachary Bashoor

A view of The Ranch’s forests from one of our five peaks. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Lanier Photography.

While large trees sequester a vast majority of carbon in a forest, trees in Montana and on The Ranch are significantly shorter-lived species than many other species in the U.S., meaning that their growth slows substantially at a younger age (typically around 100 years), making it important to create a cycle of growth rather than just protecting older trees. This sometimes means cutting trees that have stopped or slowed in growth in order to let other trees grow faster with less competition, or planting different trees in areas that do not have an adequate amount of trees or species composition.

As of the beginning of 2023, about 225 acres of forest on the ranch have been restored, 3 miles of fuel breaks along roads and between building sites have been created, hazardous fuels around building sites have been removed to reduce the chance of building ignitions. Many trees being cut from these efforts have been supplying the ranch with firewood to heat all of the lodges and buildings. Thanks to the investment that The Ranch has made in being proactive land stewards, the State of Montana (announced by the governor) awarded a $500,000 grant to the ranch to aid in these efforts in 2023.

A century of human intervention and mismanagement puts us at a crossroads of losing substantial amounts of forest in Montana without swift action. While it will take many, many years to get ahead of the curve, being proactive like The Ranch at Rock Creek is in addressing these issues will not only help to secure the Ranch’s forests and values but reduces management complexities on a much larger scale and is a key component of a much larger, collective effort to do our part for the environment. Forests, insects, disease, and wildfire know no property boundaries. In order to effectively restore landscapes, it must be an ‘all hands, all lands’ approach.

~ Zachary Bashoor