Routt County The whine of chain saws echoes through the green spruce trees and bare aspen west of Summit Lake on Buffalo Pass. To find the source, it's a hop, skip and a jump over rocks and through trees, down a steep slope and along a two-week-old trail of frozen boot-printed mud.
At the end of the path, on the outskirts of 120 scattered acres of uprooted trees, Kenny Bigback, Alvin Strangeowl, Clinton Little Brave, Victor Walksalong and others in the 20-man crew wheel modified chain saws, peeling the bark off spruce-beetle infested trees.
No, these guys aren't from around here.
The crew is from the Northern Cheyenne Nation in Montana in the southeast corner of the state. They were contracted by the U.S. Forest Service to assist in an 87-person, $1.2 million effort to suppress a spruce-beetle infestation on the scenic corridors in Routt County.
The Native American crew is actually made up of firefighters, fresh off Montana's summer wildfire season where thousands of acres of the state burned.
"There's a little more excitement on the fires," Bigback admits while taking a break from his peeling. However, he's not complaining. The husky young man, who was a football and basketball star at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Mont., looks over the Yampa Valley from the scenic pass about 3,000 feet above.
"It's a nice job here. I like it a lot," he said.
The Forest Service likes the crew, too.
"The reason we like firefighters doing this kind of work is because they're qualified to use chain saws and they know their way around the forest," Forest Service spokeswoman Diann Pipher said.
Plus, the Cheyenne crew members are good workers and, "There's always work to do in the woods," Forest Service silviculturalist Larry Kent said. He's interested in hiring the crew for more work.
Spruce beetle suppression efforts in scenic corridors and around recreation areas of the Routt National Forest have doubled this fall. "The reason we're doubling the efforts this year is because there are more adult beetles this fall (compared to last fall)," Forest Service silviculturalist Larry Kent said. An 87-person team, which includes crew workers and administrative staff, will work on suppressing the spruce beetle epidemic in the Routt Forest, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Diann Pipher said. The efforts are part of a $1.2 million Forest Service project designed to limit the impact of the beetles. Throughout the fall, crews from Denver, Gunnison and also from Montana and Utah will cut and peel bark from spruce trees felled by the 1997 Routt Divide Blowdown. That freak windstorm killed thousands of acres of trees and created prime beetle habitats. Some piles of cut trees will be burned, Pipher said. Crews will work at the Steamboat Ski Resort, Rabbit Ears Pass, Buffalo Pass and selected campgrounds and trailheads in the Routt Forest. Seven entomologists also have been brought to the area to study the beetles in hopes of gaining new insight into the voracious insects.
The crew is cutting up the dead trees into small logs and peeling the bark off the wood, lethally exposing the beetles to the elements.
Sending Native Americans to Routt County to do beetle-suppression work is a progressive step for the Northern Cheyenne Nation, and it eventually could benefit other tribes in Montana.
The Northern Cheyenne crew's job with the Forest Service is possibly the first time the Montana Indian Firefighters, an organization the Cheyenne team works for, has contracted crews outside the state for work besides firefighting, said Adam Wolf, lead engine foreman for the Northern Cheyenne Nation.
"The saw team that is down there right now, the majority of those guys are crew leaders. They're the cream of the crop," Wolf said.
The tribe wanted to send the best people it had for the job, he said.
"It's opening some doors for us, and that's a good thing," Wolf said.
Fighting fires during the summer is an important source of revenue for tribes in eastern and northern Montana, where some reservations have unemployment rates much higher than the national average.
This summer the Bureau of Indian Affairs paid out about $5 million in wages between June and August to about 3,800 Montana Native Americans.
The Cheyenne have four weeks left on a six-week contract with the Forest Service in Colorado.
For Bigback, whose wife had a baby boy while he was away on the job, the work is rewarding.
"This is fun," he said. "I like hard work and all these guys do, too."
To reach Doug Crowl call 871-4206 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org