An epic end to an iconic tree.

On February 1, 2024, a landmark 110’ Ponderosa pine located 30’ above Montana Highway 35, south of Woods Bay, was safely removed as the result of a partnership between Flathead Electric Cooperative (FEC), the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT), and the US Forest Service (USFS). The tree, dead for about 20 years and much beloved in the area, had significant rot around its base. It was expected to fall across MT 35 and represented an enormous risk to the traveling public and to the power lines located nearby.

In order to access the tree, a large bucket truck needed to be parked across both lanes of Montana Highway 35.

Amanda Opp, Integrated Services Manager for FEC, notes, “The threat to the power lines is about much more than the inconvenience of the tree falling and creating a power outage – power outages during –30F cold snaps as we recently experienced are threats to human life and safety. However, as part of our vegetation management efforts, we were also concerned that the tree would fall into the power lines and spark a wildfire. Removing the tree took a lot of coordination and work across agencies, but at the end of the day, it was felled without issue and our neighbors are safer in multiple ways.”

How do you remove a tree of this magnitude above a state highway?

1. Call in your partners with specialized equipment.

Flathead Electric Co-op crews trim trees all year long to improve electric reliability and reduce the risk of wildfire. Our fleet of bucket trucks boasts an impressive reach of approximately 75 feet. Coupled with our highly skilled and specialized workforce equipped with advanced climbing abilities, this synergy eliminates the need for a larger bucket truck in most situations. However, when a job necessitates it, we call on our friends at Asplundh– they specialize in safe, cost-effective, and environmentally sustainable vegetation management and utility infrastructure services. Check out their 112’ bucket truck, picture above.

Your Co-op also called G&D Crane, located out of Missoula, to support safe tree removal efforts with two extra-large, 170’ cranes.

Asplundh Region 172 Manager & Vice President Jon-Paul Paulsen (center) coordinated with all partners involved in this tree removal.
Safety was top of mind for all crews involved. Approximately 25 people from FEC, USFS, MDT, Asplundh and G&D Crane kicked off the project with an in-depth safety briefing. Here, Jason Collins from Asplundh briefs the group on potential hazards and planned mitigations.

2. Round up the tree experts.

You probably already know that you need to have a plan before you cut down a tree. Which way do you want it to fall? How are you going to accomplish that goal? Better call an arborist.

Site inspections showed considerable rot at the base of the tree.

You might not know that the tree’s structural integrity also plays a significant role in this assessment. In this case, the tree had been dead for about 20 years, and there was concern that it was so rotten that it might not fall the way a structurally sound tree would. Before an initial removal plan could form, arborists needed to determine the strength of the tree’s core.

Most often, that involves taking core samples from a tree. However, the arborists feared that core sampling could worsen the condition of the tree. Instead, they performed sound testing, which is an arborist’s art of striking the tree to listen for rottenness or hollowness.

Chad Bessette, Vegetation Management Supervisor at FEC, notes, “Even with the sound testing, it was difficult to know exactly what percentage of the tree had rotted. We still didn’t know for sure if the tree’s core was stable enough to allow us to fell it in a traditional manner. Because of this, Asplundh created two removal plans.”

3. Make a plan for safe removal.

First, ask your partners at USFS to close the popular, neighboring Beardance trailhead. Second, ask your partners at MDT to close MT Highway 35. Third, use the extra tall Asplundh bucket truck to remove the tree’s lower branches to eliminate as much weight as possible. All the while, continue assessing the tree’s condition to determine if it can be safely felled uphill, away from the highway and the power lines.

The crews wondered: was the tree strong enough to fall, or would it crumble under the stress of a chainsaw? They made two plans.

Plan A: If the tree’s core had the required stability to be felled uphill, crews planned to apply pressure to the higher areas of the tree with a pulley system, encouraging the tree to fall uphill after appropriate chainsaw cuts were made by the arborists.

Plan B: If the tree’s core lacked the stability to be felled uphill, crews planned to remove the tree in pieces, from top to bottom, using G & D’s extra-large cranes and their buckets.

4. Execute the plan.

Asplundh’s crews remove lower branches from the base of the tree and assess its structural integrity.

In this case, after removing the tree’s branches and continuing to assess stability, the crew decided to move forward with Plan A, and prepared to fell the tree uphill. Several hours had passed, so they took a break to allow traffic through the closed section of the highway.

Asplundh crew whips a long strap around the tree to stabilize the trunk.

Then, the crew wrapped a ratchet strap around the base of the tree’s trunk, like a corset, to stabilize the tree. They also attached three pull ropes to the tree’s upper trunk to put tension on the tree and control its descent.

Look closely to see three ropes around the upper trunk of the tree.
Asplundh’s sawyer makes the final cuts to the base of the 110’ Ponderosa pine. The fine, brown dust seen above is indicative of rotten wood.

At last, final sawyer cuts began. Initially, a large cloud of dust and a hollow sound indicated a large amount of tree rot. Fortunately, after the sawyer’s chainsaw cut deeper, the sound changed and wood chips became bigger, indicating more solid wood at the center of the tree trunk. Finally, at approximately 3:00 p.m., this massive landmark toppled and fell – uphill, as according to plan. The historic tree’s stem was left on site. The crews chipped limbs that they could chip and left the remaining tree as close to the forest floor as possible following fire fuel reduction practices.  The tree crossed the Beardance trail, so a path was cut through the tree. If you walk the trail, you’ll now walk through the old giant.


After being felled, arborists estimated that this tree was 319 years old and had been dead for almost 20 years.

Your Co-op thanks its many partners for their dedication to public safety overall and to project safety during the tree’s removal. We will continue our efforts to harden the grid, reduce the risk of wildfire, and improve the reliability of your electric system through year-round tree-trimming efforts. Want to learn more? Visit: Trees – Flathead Electric Cooperative

Watch the video below to see timelapse footage of the branch removal and tree prep, and a clip of the final felling of the tree.

Courtney Stone

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