As this summer's forest fire season begins with a vengeance in California, forestry experts are still recovering from last year, which was considered one of the worst in almost a century. Blazes raged from California to Utah, Idaho and beyond.

One of the areas worst hit by the fires was the Bitterroot Valley in Montana, where an estimated 300,000 acres were burned in the valley alone and almost a third of the Bitterroot National Forest was destroyed.

While the Bitterroot Valley may be known for fiery scenes of mass destruction, for the past 15 years it has been the home of Bitterroot Restoration Inc. (BRI), a small landscape restoration company that has flourished, due in part to its ability to win government contracts from the National Park Service, the Department of Defense, and other state and federal agencies. "You would be amazed how many people don't bother to figure out what we want done," said a botanist who works for the National Park Service in Denver. She agreed to discuss small-business contracting if she was not identified.

"[Business owners will] look at bid packages and ignore them. Or they'll send you some brochures or write you a long letter about how they want to work for you," she laments. "They need to tell me what they have [to offer] and how they can deal with my problem, with good evidence, and good references."

Founded in 1986 by Pat Burke and his ex-wife, Jan Krueger, BRI specializes in restoring native plants and ecosystems on disturbed and polluted land-from mine sites to flood plains, highways and forests destroyed by fire. "When we first got started, the whole notion of ecological restoration barely existed-no one talked about it but a couple of academics," said Burke, who has master's degrees in forest ecology and philosophy. "I happened to be one of those academics. I went to a conference at Berkeley in 1986 and realized this had a lot of potential."

In its first year in business, BRI brought in $17,000 in revenue. Burke's ex-wife held a job to support the family. Today, the company employs more than 100 and has offices in California, Montana and Oregon. Revenue for BRI almost doubled between 1999 and 2000-from $2.4 million to $4.2 million. Burke said he expects revenue to double hit $9 million this year. Government contracts account for 55 percent of total revenues.

Burke estimates the landscape restoration industry as a whole generated about $349 million a year-and predicts it will triple to $1.2 billion by 2003. There are more landscape restoration companies in the West than the East due to the concentration of mining, the legislation requiring restoration and the sensitive ecosystems of the area.

BRI sets itself apart by taking a holistic approach-not just to restoring landscapes, but to the way it does business. The company is involved in every stage of the restoration process, from planning and design to pollution clean-up, soil restoration, seed collection, plant propagation, planting and site management. Clients range from mines and park operators to highways, military bases and private lands such as ranches.

"A lot of mining companies would hire agricultural experts," said Burke. "They'd come in, look at the soil and say, 'OK, we need so many pounds of nitrogen, so many pounds of phosphorous and so many pounds of potassium. We take an ecological approach. We looked at nearby vegetation, a fully forested area or mature grassland, and say 'What does it take to get there?' What we do is basically jumpstart the natural process."

But if BRI is mimicking Mother Nature, why not just let damaged landscapes recover on their own? "Eventually, most sites would re-vegetate themselves," said Len Ballek, BRI's vice president of marketing. "But it could take 100 years or more. Also, in a lot of cases, native plants might be totally missing from the surrounding area."

Considered a leader in his industry, Burke went to Washington, DC, last week to talk with legislators and others about the pros and cons of restoration initiatives. Not every forest fire requires human intervention to restore the landscape. "A lot of ecosystems in the West are fire-dependent," explained Burke, "and a lot of times the best thing to do is nothing."

That said, the severity of last year's fires "are the result of 100 years of fire suppression combined with historic drought. The damage was so dramatic in some places, Burke said, "the soil was sterilized because it was so hot."

You don't have to do landscape restoration to land a government contract. Every year, the federal government spends about $200 billion in "procurement services," according to John DiGiacomo, director of the Procurement Technical Assistance Center in Rockford, Illinois, and co-author of Win Government Contracts for Your Small Business. "Last year, the government wrote 18½ million contracts," says DiGiacomo. "That ran the gamut from buying peanut butter to major systems."

Savvy small-business owners should try to take advantage of the government's goal to purchase 23 percent of its goods and services from small businesses, with special consideration to women-, disadvantaged- and disabled-owned small businesses.

Alluring as $200 billion may be, dealing with a complex application process and government bureaucracy scares off many small-business owners.

Fortunately, there is help. One of the best places to go for help is a local Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC). There are 94 PTACs in operation today. Almost all the services that PTACs provide are free to small businesses, but expect to be asked for detailed information about your business, and you'll need information about successful contracts you complete.

"We tell everybody there are three secrets to winning government contracts," said James Kleckner, a consultant for the Rockford, Illinois-based PTAC and another co-author of Win Government Contracts for Your Small Business. "First, read; second, read; and.can you guess what the third secret is?"

"Business owners really do need to read the document, make notes on what they don't understand, and use resources of the buying office or PTAC."

Resource Guide
For more information on government contracts, see the following:


Jane Applegate is a syndicated columnist and the author of 201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business. For a free copy of her "Business Owner's Check Up," send your name and address to Check Up, P.O. Box 768, Pelham NY 10803 or e-mail it to info@sbtv.com. Sarah Prior contributed to this report.