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Black Hills forest fires may teach some lessons
By Cara Hetland
Minnesota Public Radio
September 27, 2001
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Lightning started nearly two dozen fires this summer in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Many were small and easily contained. Some were larger and took weeks to put out. It's been just over a year since the largest fire ever burned in the Black Hills. The blaze dubbed the Jasper fire burned nearly seven percent of the forest. The fire has some pointing to government management of the Black Hills National Forest as the cause, with predictions of even more devastating fires to come.

Tens of thousands of acres of forest have burned the past two years in the Black Hills National Forest. State and federal officials have been working for 10 years on a forest management plan, and some say the lack of a plan is partly to blame for the fires.
See more images.
(MPR Photo/Cara Hetland)
Highway 16 is one of those stretches of roadway where they could shoot a car commercial. The dark orange trunks of ponderosa pines fill the rolling hills along the highway. On one of the southern stretches, not far from the Wyoming border, is Elk Mountain. No longer a landmark covered with dark green pine, it now shows the charred remnants of a recent forest fire. Hot spot smoke is still visible at the mountain's peak.

On the fire's edge, only nine days after it was brought under control, the smell of burned pine trees grabs you. There's a crunch with every step, and soot covers your shoes. But there is already grass sprouting in areas where the fire didn't burn as hot. "We see a lot less stuff left on the surface of the soil. Here we won't see regrowth before winter hits - there's already some erosion," says Lois Zieman, a spokeswoman for the National Forest Service.

A pool of gray sediment washed down the mountain from a recent rain. Next spring, erosion and flooding will be a threat. The Elk Mountain fire consumed nearly 27,000 acres, and was just one of several forest fires this year in the Black Hills National Forest. Fire crews worked to steer this year's fires toward the areas still charred from last year. The Jasper Fire burned 83,000 acres and is the largest fire ever in the history of the Black Hills National Forest.

The spot known as the Hell Canyon trail head - once a popular hiking point - is closed now because trees can fall at any time. The hillside is barren. Rain brings dirt and gravel down the mountain, while there's some green in other areas. Some ponderosa pines are half-charred and half-green. Others look like a convention of blackened telephone poles. It depends where you look, how the fire burned this forest.

Leigh Lentile is trying to understand the effects this fire had on the forest ecosystem. Lentile, a student at Colorado State University, says the fire is interesting to study because it burned in three directions, and in one day it consumed 50,000 acres while creating its own weather system. Lentile is using pre-fire maps that details forest stands - which are similar vegetation and tree groupings growing in like soil.

"We want to be able to examine if the behavior of the fire is related to pre-existing vegetation conditions," says Lentile. "Secondly what we want to do is translate fire intensity into severity. We'll accomplish that with monitoring direct fire effects over time."

"The productivity of the Black Hills National Forest is just immense. Ponderosa pines grow here like nowhere else in the world."

- Steve Flanderka, a logger from Hulett, Wyo.
This summer was the first opportunity for Lentile to collect data. She and her team of researchers are collecting soil samples, tree litter - or needles - and watching what's growing where. They're marking areas, and mapping which trees survived and which died. Lentile says some trees may die next year or the year after. She says over a five-year period they'll be watching the same areas.

"We also put litter bags out so we can look at decomposition rates over time. We'll be able to answer questions like: Was decomposition increased by the fire, or do things just slow down over time? Or is there a stagnation period where we just have to catch up over time?" says Lentile. "We put out seed traps so we'll be looking at different distances from a live edge, to see how far seeds will travel and whether seeds are viable. We'll take some seeds back to Fort Collins, and grow them in the greenhouse."

Lentile isn't alone in her work studying the Black Hills. There are others researching the effects of the Jasper fire. The State Game, Fish and Parks Department is studying the impact the fire had on wildlife. They want to know which species will return and how their habitat has changed. There are also studies on noxious weeds and the impact on snails. But it's the research Lentile is doing that can provide a scientific base for how to manage the forest to best prevent devastating fires.

The forest is used by many people for many different purposes. Some make their living logging off the land, others want to experience its natural beauty. Still others see it as a prime hunting spot. The debate over forest management in the Black Hills is part of a national debate. It's taken 10 years to write a management plan for the Black Hills National Forest - and many say the lack of a plan may be to blame for the recent fires. One critic is South Dakota Gov. Bill Janklow.

"Nine to 10 years to do a forest plan? World War II only took three-and-a-half years from beginning to end."

Janklow was among a dozen people participating in a recent roundtable discussion on forest management. He says every fire now has the potential to be catastrophic. He's enlisted prison inmates to help clear timber in the burned areas.

South Dakota Gov. Bill Janklow is among the critics of the National Forest Service. He says the lack of a management plan for the Black Hills National Forest may have contributed to the latest round of fires.
(MPR Photo/Cara Hetland)
There was a management plan, but several organizations sued to stop its enactment. The plan laid out logging quotas, which areas should have road access, and how to maintain a scenic quality while promoting rural development opportunities. One of the opponents of this or any plan is the Black Hills Area Sierra Club. Its spokesman, Brian Brademeyer, says the country's national forests need to return to a more natural state.

"Commercial timber programs should be replaced with a contract thinning program. Focus on small trees five inches or under. Then stack and burn to get rid of them."

Brademeyer suggests increasing the beaver population to thin larger trees. The Sierra Club's lawsuit has virtually stopped any forest thinning, any removal of trees blown down, and any insect control.

"We can't manage land from a courtroom," says Steve Flanderka, a logger from Hulett, Wyo.

"We need to hire the experts in the forest service that have the expertise to manage their area of responsibility - the recreation, the timber, the wildlife, the grazing. We need to let those people do their jobs," he says.

Flanderka typically takes 5,000 truckloads of logs each year from the Black Hills - that's about one-quarter of the total timber cut. Flanderka says it's been estimated by some that three times more trees could come out of the forest without harming the forest.

"The productivity of the Black Hills National Forest is just immense. Ponderosa pines grow here like nowhere else in the world. They're extremely prolific. It's an extremely lush forest. It produces on its own, we don't have to reseed or plant after logging."

Flanderka says fire is a natural event in any forest, but the threat of a devastating fire can be lessened if the forest is managed well. He encourages the creation of a healthy forest by keeping in mind its multiple uses.

More information
  • Black Hills National Forest
  • Sierra Club, South Dakota Chapter