Crystal Lake Campground Closed: Hazard tree removal could take years

Charlie Denison

Forest District Ranger Ron Wiseman of Stanford stands by the closed gate in front of Crystal Lake’s campground. The campground is closed for the season.
Photo by Charlie Denison

Forestry technician Matt Voigt grabs rot out of an old, decaying tree on the Crystal Lake campground Monday.
Photo by Charlie Denison

If you were planning on camping at Crystal Lake this summer, better make other plans.

The popular 30-acre, 27-unit campsite is closed this year, and is expected to be closed the following year (or years), as more than 50 percent of the trees in the area are considered “hazardous.”

Hearing such news is not easy for Central Montanans, as Crystal Lake is largely considered the most popular local campsite, but, according to Helena-Lewis-and-Clark National Forest District Ranger Ron Wiseman and Forestry Technician Matt Voigt, they were left with no choice.

“If you come out here and see the campground, you won’t debate us,” Wiseman said.

Wearing their hard hats, Wiseman and Voigt walked around the campsite Monday, shaking their heads as they came across large numbers of dead, rotted, collapsing trees.

“It’s mostly root disease and stem decays causing these tree failures,” Voigt said. “The winter was really telling because you get the snow load and you get the wind. Those two coupled together caused an abundance of tree failures. When we got out there this year and started assessing the trees, we detected the decay and also saw signs of the decay in neighboring trees.”

For the past 11 years, Voigt has worked in the Helena-Lewis-and-Clark National Forest. Although originally from North Dakota, he’s spent most of his career in Montana, focusing largely on trees. It’s easy for him to go into extensive detail on why and how the trees of Crystal Lake are in this situation. He tried to simplify it to the best of his ability.

What it boils down to, Voigt said, is a combination of the trees getting old, rotting, forming decay and becoming more vulnerable to insects, wind, snow loads and general increased potential for failure.

The soil is impacted, Voigt said, which makes it easier for disease to spread, and it spread alright.

Engelmann spruce, subalpine fir and lodge pole pines were all affected by the diseases. The main disease, Voigt said, is called tomentosus, a root disease that occurs largely in the spruce trees. Most diseases involved fungus, causing extensive damage in trees 200 years or older.

“These diseases produce rotten material that just powders apart in your hand,” Voigt said.

Not all tree issues are obvious, however, Voigt said. Some trees that appear healthy may suffer if the other trees are taken down, causing more issues.

“We call this the ‘stand unraveling effect,’” Voigt said. “Trees that are green and don’t appear unhealthy start tipping over when they are exposed to more wind. This happened at Jumping Creek Campground 30 miles northeast of White Sulphur Springs.”

To see so many trees fall ill is disheartening, Wiseman said, but it’s just how Mother Nature operates.

It hasn’t been pretty, Wiseman attested.

“Forest Health Protection representatives cut down 130 trees in a very small area and that’s when we knew the disease and decay was affecting a bigger area than we realized,” Wiseman said. “One hundred and twenty seven trees were taken down, and all but two of them had some kind of rot in them, and the roots had signs of rot, so we knew that would be a problem.”


Group site still open, day-use encouraged

Based in Stanford, Wiseman is fully aware of Crystal Lake’s recreational importance, and he said he’s sorry to have to break such unfortunate news.

“In the best-case scenario we’ll be able to have the campground open within a year,” he said.

But it’s difficult to know how long this extensive tree removal process will take. One of the best estimations comes by comparison, as Jumping Creek Campground recently had a similar issue, and it was closed for two or three years.

It’s a shame for both the Forest Service and the regular users, as all benefit from Crystal Lake’s constant use, whether by locals or people from elsewhere in the state or region.

“Crystal Lake is the highest revenue generating campground we have in Helena-Lewis-and-Clark National Forest,” Wiseman said. “It runs about 80 percent occupancy from when we open it in the middle of June up until Labor Day weekend.”

There is, however, a silver lining, Wiseman said, as Crystal Lake will still be available for day use and the group site is available for camping by reservation. Dispersed camping is also still allowed on a first-come, first-served basis.

“We encourage people to continue coming out to this spot,” Wiseman said. “The picnic area, the boat ramp and the hikes are all still here.”

This is by no means the end of camping at Crystal Lake, Wiseman added.

“We want to remove the trees and fix up the campsite in as short a time as possible,” he said.


Now what?

 In order to try and prevent such a large-scale vegetation manipulation in the future, Voigt and other specialists are putting together vegetation management plans for the areas they cover.

“We have to have something on paper answering the question, ‘how are we going to manage this in the future?’” Voigt said. “With this management plan, we want to be on the same page as wildlife, soil, hydrology and all other specialists, and have the information we need in one living document.”

The vegetation management plan for Crystal Lake will focus on removing hazards, reestablishing vegetation, planting trees with more resistance and managing trees at a younger age.

Before the plan is established, however, the Forest Service will take care of immediate needs. A crew will be assembled, a timber sale will occur and additional funding will be sought for a project that is larger in scale than anticipated.

It will take some time, Voigt said, but Crystal Lake campground will be restored, allowing camping again as soon as possible. And, after some time, it will again be as forested as it is today.

“We are going to leave up as many non-hazardous trees as possible,” Voigt said, “but it will mostly be smaller trees.”

For more information, call Wiseman at 566-2292 or email him at To make reservations for the group site, go to






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