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  • Writer's pictureDarian Dyer

Journeying Out West: Montana Firewood Banks Visits

This last week Alliance for Green Heat toured Western Montana to see for ourselves how rural community firewood banks manage to address the need for heat security in a landscape made up of rolling foothills and lush valley floors encased in timber topped mountains. The itinerary included the Firewood Bank of the Ruby Valley in Sheridan, the Beaverhead Community Wood Bank Ministry in Dillon, and Swan Valley Connections in Condon. All three firewood banks utilized their Firewood Bank Assistance Program grant to purchase log-length fir and pine wood, limbed and sorted, and ready to process. The logs were sourced out of Montana by local loggers. The Lodgepole pines were harvested as fallen or dead trees and dry upon delivery, whereas the fir logs were often green and needed to rest a season to fully cure. This purchase allowed them to get ahead on next year’s distribution by ensuring they had dry wood at the ready when the snow starts to fall.

Swan Valley Connections

We drove a long but beautiful journey to Condon, MT, located in the middle of the Swan Valley. The last hour of the drive followed a winding valley floor highway that overlooked a chain of pristine mountain lakes and was surrounded by timber. Swan Valley Connections (SVC), an educational non-profit that emphasizes wildfire prevention and bear safety, sat just off the highway within a dense forest that contained Larch, Lodgepole, and Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. It was clear, by the walls of educational materials and signs of conservation planning initiatives, that SVC is serious about land stewardship.

Mike (left) and Hannah (right) in the Swan Valley Connections' wood lot area.

Each year SVC hosts a Community Firewood Day event, where the community comes together to process firewood in advance of distribution throughout the fall. They process about 20 cords of wood and serve 25 homes in the area. The organization itself is unique in the firewood bank landscape because they partner with the U.S. Forest Service and issue personal use firewood permits from their front desk. Their offices are housed in an old USFS wildfire crew compound which has been well used by the community. SVC serves as a resource hub for private landowners in the Swan Valley. Landowners have been known to implement timber thinning practices on their private property and then donate the wood back to the SVC firewood bank, connecting conservation to community supported energy.

SVC also partners with the University of Montana, Missoula; they host a 12 credit immersive course at their grounds where students see the firewood bank in action, assist in processing and distribution, and engage with local recipients and SVC volunteers. Mike, the Conservation and Stewardship Associate (and Community Firewood Day coordinator), helped us imagine the community demographic and demand for their services over the years. We took a short walk to the wood lot where we got to see the logs and tarps purchased with grant funding. Being a smaller and more limited-scope firewood bank operation, Mike is planning on these logs to last the group a couple of years, leaving ample time for seasoning. We delighted in brainstorming how their organization could expand education around best wood burning practice and fire prevention inside the home and out through their existing network and future students to come.

Firewood Bank of the Ruby Valley

AGH staff sat down at the Ford residence with some members of the FBRV Board of Directors.

At one time, a singular firewood bank entity served the tri-county area from two firewood bank locations. This endeavor was organized by Father Harry Nealy and the Episcopal church. The two banks collaborated from 1994-2016; then in 2016, in an attempt to better serve their clients, the two firewood banks split and each established themselves as 501(c)(3) nonprofits and focused on their local community. The Firewood Bank of the Ruby Valley (FBRV) in Sheridan, MT (population: 751) is one of the two which shared a relationship for so long. Frank Ford, their Executive Director, and expert in animal science, Yellowstone, and community outreach, met us downtown before showing us around the valley. On the way to his and his wife’s beautiful home on the East edge of town with their old dog, Jaz, we learned about the construction of the Ruby dam, which transformed the foothills of the Tobacco Root mountains from a dryland desert to a lush agricultural area. At the Ford’s home we were met by Jeff (Operations Director), Lori (Client Relations), and Frank’s wife Beverly (along with her fabulous oatmeal cookies, coffee, and sweet tea). There, we discussed the history of the FBRV, typical operations, and the challenges of the geography. They deliver 140 cords a year to around 45 homes. With 30 years in operation the board knew how to reach their community; whether it was to look out for a neighbor or request assistance with funding a new piece of equipment, their neighbors always showed up.

Darian (left), Frank (middle), and Hannah (right) outside the Ford residence.

This is where we got our first taste of the unique and rugged flavor of a Montana firewood bank. One of our main goals with these visits is to learn more about those households that firewood banks serve. In Montana, households often exhibit resourcefulness and self-reliance (sometimes to their own detriment). Asking for help does not come easy to those that grew up incredibly independent in the unforgiving Mountain West. The Board of Directors of the FBRV understand this and respect the privacy and strength of their recipients. This is reflected in their “no-funny business” delivery system and straightforward application process. In situations where winter is approaching and they haven’t heard from a previous recipient yet, they already plan for a delivery.

We then made our way to the FBRV wood lot, a space lent to them by the Barnosky family, well known ranchers in the community. There, we see the logs that their grant money purchased, their storage shed, equipment, and fleet of vintage delivery trucks as old as 1974. We met their Safety Coordinator, Steve, and their Outreach Lead, Lon. The team demonstrated their trusty, homemade, wood splitter that they say has served them faithfully since its creation by Harry Neeley (a Montana Firewood Bank legend deserving of his own write-up). They also walked us through their seasoning process, although fir is slightly better than pine as firewood it requires much more time to dry than the pine that is easier to harvest dead and already seasoned. Jeff takes monitoring the moisture in all green log deliveries seriously and documents the decrease in moisture over time, just for his own knowledge. They do all that they can to ensure only seasoned wood with little to no moisture makes it to the homes of their recipients.

Beaverhead Community Wood Bank Ministry

Lastly, we toured the Beaverhead Community Wood Bank Ministry, about an hour drive away from FBRV, in Dillon, MT. This wood bank ministry is the second of the two original tri-county firewood banks started in 1994. They deliver wood to around 44 homes every year with an income-based application process.

Rick, Hannah, and Katie look on as volunteers work at the Beaver Head Community Wood Bank Ministry.

We were lucky to visit during one of their work days where we were able to catch the last 30 minutes of their wood processing activity. Upon our arrival, we shook hands with the regular “woodchuckers” and they quickly went back to business. With 3 people to a wood splitter to load, operate, and unload the machine we loved watching the firewood pile grow. We sat down with Rick, the President, and Katie, the Secretary of the group, at a picnic table nestled between their tool shed and a new converted storage container building. We went through the same operational-focused discussion that we had with FBRV.

The similarities in their work and recipients was expected, given their shared history and proximity. Much like with FBRV, the community surrounding the firewood bank was heavily invested in its operational success. They recently crowd funded a new Bobcat skid steer through brand deals and major monetary contributions from community groups and businesses around town. Rick, in particular, is gifted in his neighborhood connections and his ability to communicate needs and wants of the firewood bank. Katie brings her expertise in forestry and grants to make sure the firewood bank functions administratively. This year they relocated the wood lot to leased city property. The central location is an excellent way to draw attention from their small community, however most already know about the wood bank in some way, shape, or form. Again, the 30 years operating has resulted in a smooth delivery of services. They make all decisions as a Board at their monthly board meetings, and have a committed partnership with youth ROTC. All youth recruits enjoy the time at the firewood bank because of the time spent outdoors, fun physical release, and exposure to people they may not meet otherwise. One of their regular volunteers is a WWII veteran and frequently attends the wood bank work days to get his exercise and socialize with others. It certainly takes a village.

Katie retired with the US Forest Service after a variety of forestry roles, this gives her a unique perspective on timber management locally and around other Forest Service regions. She mentioned the ongoing efforts of the Forest Service to reduce fuels and how they’ve been going for decades. The issue is communicating the urgency for accelerated fuels management with the budget available. Firewood banks have a unique opportunity to address fuels management from a wildfire prevention perspective if the right kind of responsible timber agreement could be formed.

Connecting with firewood bank leaders in person, floating ideas past them and brainstorming different approaches to increase the safety and health of their recipients, is another major goal of these site visits. It is a helpful and important reminder of the care and consideration it takes to tailor outreach to the specific communities we are trying to reach. And, as always, it is a fantastic time to witness in person the work, knowledge, and joy that firewood bank volunteers and leaders practice year-around in creating their own distinctive solutions to the heating needs in their communities. It is a privilege to be able to travel to firewood banks to see the natural ease in which volunteers and leaders fit into their environment, observing the ways in which they lean into their impactful work in the most humble ways.

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