Even under these conditions, as Swanstrom and I rode the 155 mile loop around Flathead County where his whole life is marked by parts of the land, I was mostly speechless. Speechless at how beautiful the world was. My first time in Montana certainly didn’t disappoint and it was certainly and delightfully nothing like the silly Yellowstone television show makes it out to be. I watched and listened as Swanstrom pointed out the spot where his very first skidder was delivered. The areas where he and his father did salvage work in the 70s and 80s for Champion International. I listened with rapt attention as he told me about how they worked an area that was originally created by Chinese immigrants, hand dug out for a railroad that connected part of the West. Part of the buttresses that were put in the 1880s to bridge the Continental Divide still stand.
Swanstrom showed me the first tree he ever felled, as its stump still stands in the old forest that was once Champion’s land. He talks with passion about the Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge, in Pleasant Valley, where he admits he was wrong about something the government wanted to do to his beloved land. Now, the over farmed, parched pastures are a truly marvelous sight to behold with wildflowers, birds and rumors of elk—though this born and bred Southerner didn’t get to see one!
It’s not just the trees and the forests and the mountains and the wildlife that Swanstrom loves and wants to preserve and protect. Its his knowledge of the history behind it all. As an example: Swanstrom and I rode out to one of his favorite jobsites, a church camp nestled in the Lakeside community of the Flathead. How in the 1920s and 1930s the Lutherans and the Methodists had been sharing some land and some cabins before they decided each group needed their own space— he recalls the history of how Lutherans snowshoed into the undeveloped wild on the shores of Flathead Lake and bought the property for $1,000. Later, when some hiking trails needed to be cut out and otherwise have some management done Swanstrom prepared and delivered a presentation to the camp’s Board of Directors to give him the job. Of course, his management plan won the bid and he still remembers nearly every detail of the job, as he does with almost all the jobs he’s done across his five decades long career.
No Swanstrom’s operation, Skookum Timber, doesn’t have a huge machinery footprint in Flathead County, Montana and he doesn’t move the most loads off the mountains. He does something much more important: He gives every piece of his heart and soul to the land that raised him. And for that, I cannot think of a more worthy Timber Harvesting Logging Business Of The Year award recipient.