MISSOULA – Despite a global pandemic that forced remote instruction for the final weeks of their academic career at the University of Montana, nearly 1,900 students persevered to reach their May 9 graduation day.
Of course, COVID-19 stole the in-person, pomp-and-circumstance Commencement students and their families have come to expect each spring. So UM administrators came up with a uniquely Montana solution:
They would plant trees. Two thousand and twenty ponderosa pine and western larch seedlings to celebrate the stoic and gritty Class of 2020 – all planted on a University-owned ranch in the heart of Big Sky Country.
“Just the act of planting trees demonstrates hope for the future,” said UM President Seth Bodnar, who joined the planting crew, along with wife, Chelsea, and their three children. “While we are disappointed that coronavirus has altered our traditional plans for Commencement, we hope our graduates know that we are thinking of them and honoring them with a hopeful gesture that, in a small way, makes the world for the better.”
The seedling planting is part of a reforestation project on a timbered section of the ranch managed by UM forestry students. In addition, back on the main campus in Missoula, a large shade tree will be planted for the Class of 2020, with a marker describing the graduation-day Bandy Ranch conservation planting.
“We considered several options, from mailing gift boxes to ordering personalized items, but we were also constrained by shutdowns in manufacturing and other issues with so many employees working remotely,” said Paula Short, UM’s director of communications. “We were running through options, and the idea of planting trees was mentioned. It instantly felt like the perfect symbolic measure to celebrate our graduates.”
UM students have access to incredible outdoor classrooms, as the University owns the Bandy Ranch, the 26,000-acre Lubrecht Experimental Forest (which one passes on the drive to Bandy) and the Flathead Lake Biological Station, located on the shore of the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi.
Bandy Ranch is located about 45 miles northeast of campus. This spectacular outdoor classroom and laboratory was deeded to UM’s Montana Forest and Conservation Experiment Station in 1990 by the estate of Ed Bandy. The experiment station is part of the University’s W.A. Frank College of Forestry and Conservation.
The ranch teaches students about sustainable ranch management and grass-fed, grass-finished cattle operations in a wildland setting. Research into interactions with domestic livestock and wildlife is made easier by the abundant wildlife in the area and that the ranch borders the Blackfoot-Clearwater Game Range. Philanthropic support helped purchase UM’s first cattle herd there in 2019. And if you take Highway 200 to Bandy, much of the drive follows the Blackfoot River of a “A River Runs Through It” fame.
On Saturday – UM graduation day and planting day – about 15 people gathered to be dispersed into smaller groups among the rustic ranch buildings for initial instructions. The sky was blue with snowcapped mountains in the distance. The plan was to start the planting that day and finish on subsequent weekends. Because of COVID-19 concerns, most people wore masks, and non-family groups kept a healthy distance apart.
“We are doing a real tree planting today,” said Christopher Keyes, associate director of the experiment station (perhaps eyeing his work crew of University administrators and their families skeptically). “At the site we will talk about proper seedling handling and proper planting methods. That ranch is about 3,600 acres, and about half of it is forested. We hopefully will get a lot of new trees planted in the upper part of the forest.”
The group then caravanned up dusty, rutted roads for about three miles to a remote elevated section of the ranch. Vehicles passed among the pines, slipped through a boggy stretch and bounced over rocks.
At the join of two forest roads, the group paused for final training. They received instruction on how to use tools – planting bars and hoedads – to plant 10-cubic-inch seedlings of western larch and ponderosa pine. They were told to dig deep enough to fit the entire plug, but admonished not to create an hourglass-shaped hole with air pockets.
“If they aren’t planted correctly, they are bound to die,” Keyes said. “It’s a lot of work to plant seedlings, so what’s the point of all that work for nothing?”
He said to keep the seedlings in their bag, so they didn’t dry out. Don’t put the seedling roots in upside down. Avoid the “stomp of death” – instead, gently tamp down the earth with your foot. Look for shaded sites for seedlings, but avoid over-story trees. Don’t plant on rotted stumps. Don’t be afraid to move rocks or underbrush to create a shaded microsite for your seedlings. The advice went on. The goal was to give the seedlings the best chance at establishing and growing into a healthy, mixed conifer forest.
“Basically, we are building a stand that is tomorrow-proof,” Keyes said, eliciting applause from his audience for his clever use of a marketing phrase describing the benefits of a UM education.
He said professional tree planters can plant 700 to 1,000 seedlings in a day. “They almost don’t break stride as they move along – it’s pretty impressive.”
The UM team of planters broke into two groups to work. UM President Seth Bodnar and Provost Jon Harbor planted seedlings at a site with spectacular 360-degree views but with ground that made one understand how the Rocky Mountains got their name. Often their digging was accompanied by a spine-jarring “thunk” of their digging tools hit a rock. They also kept an eye out for wildlife. Members of the media had spotted two bears less than a mile away. Like UM’s mascot, they were grizzlies.
It was an amazing day to work outside in Montana. But at one point Bodnar paused and said, “Typically, I would be shaking 1,000 hands right now. Instead, I’m planting 1,000 trees. Commencement is one of my favorite days of the year – to see those students’ faces light up. And I’m learning it’s a lot easier to shake 1,000 hands.”
Harbor seemed to relish working to improve the timberlands on the ranch.
“This is an amazing place,” he said as he methodically planted seedling after seedling. “It feels great to be honoring our students who can’t be here, but who are here in spirit.”
Short said experiential learning and deep connections to place are cornerstones of a UM education.
“Our outdoor areas are invaluable for research, but they provide opportunities for education, connection and recreation for all students,” she said. “Our forestry, wildlife biology and ecology majors learn in one of the most extraordinary ecosystems in the world, with the opportunity to get out on the ground to perform research. But these spaces also provide inspiration for writers, photographers and artists, which are also tremendous programs of distinction at UM and the reasons many students choose to study with us.”
Regardless of major, UM students are passionate about sustainability. Short said the student government debuted some of the first zero-emission electric transit buses on college campuses in the country, and student leaders are passionate about carbon neutrality, renewable energy, recycling and climate.
“While it’s difficult to know exactly what will be meaningful to every graduate, this planting trees seems to capture the essence of our students’ care and concern for the environment,” Short said. “It’s been a great day.”
The team estimates it planted about 500 seedlings. A good beginning.