Disaster Brings Changes
Hikers and climbers who used the trails and summits of the Pine Ridge suddenly found almost nowhere to go in the region. Most public lands in the area had to be closed for extended periods of time. And just when cleanup efforts were really starting to make progress, Winter Storm Atlas struck in 2013, knocking down thousands more trees. At Fort Robinson State Park, trees downed by Winter Storm Atlas were a catalyst for improvements in their trails, complete with much-needed trail signs.
Though it has taken several years for trails to be restored to normal, off-trail hiking remains seriously impacted because of the tangle of dead trees to wade through, as well as the danger of “snags”, or trees ready to topple onto unsuspecting hikers. Because of the enormity of the cleanup needed, this situation is not likely to change in the near future.
Now That the Smoke Has Cleared
Because the forests were allowed to grow so thick for so many years, even the burned areas still present risks for additional fires. The areas of healthy trees still left in the forests are of great concern to forest management officials. These trees can provide seedlings for forest regeneration. But, all the fire damage has amplified the concern to thin even the healthy forest areas in order to minimize the impact of future fires that are almost certain to happen in this dry region.
A Historical Full Cycle
The major burns of recent years are symptoms of forest management that allowed forests to reach the level where they developed unnatural fuel loads, allowing fires of a magnitude that never occurred in the centuries before the arrival of modern civilization.
Forest management now hopes to return things closer to what they were long ago, when naturally-occurring fires periodically cleaned up the forest floors and thinned excess small growth while mostly leaving intact the mature and developed trees. Firefighters like to point out that too much vegetation on the forest floors create what they call “ladder fuels”, which allow fires to literally climb the trees, destroying them in the process. Keeping that vegetation to a minimum helps to prevent those ladder fires. Naturally-thinned forests have proven to be healthier forests, with not nearly the extent of pine beetle devastation that has been so prevalent in western USA forests the last 20 years.
Before & AfterThe photos below show what two major Pine Ridge summits looked like before the fires and how they look now.
Fortunately, not everything in the Pine Ridge region looks like the grim photos in this article. Fort Robinson and Chadron State Park have been the sites of great restoration efforts and both are well worth extended visits. The Gilbert-Baker Wildlife Area largely escaped all the major fires and Soldier Creek Wilderness is seeing serious re-forestation after the 1989 Fort Robinson-Soldier Creek fires. Toadstool Geologic Park also escaped the brunt of the fires, due to its lack of vegetation so characteristic of badlands areas.
Challenges for the Future
If the forest management goal is to return things back to a more natural order, then cleaning up the mess that has been left behind is imperative. Dense stands of dead trees and dense stands of living trees both need to be thinned. In large areas totally devoid of tree growth, plans are already in place for at least some trees to be re-introduced. This is also seen by some experts as a chance to introduce other trees into the ecosystem. All this is easier said than done given the large geographic areas in need, the difficulty of the terrain and the great expense involved.
In 2015, the forest service announced they would be planting 40,000 trees as part of a 10-year renewal plan. In other areas, forest thinning is being done – especially near populated areas. The views of large stands of dead trees and the headache of cleaning up snags on trails and roads will likely sustain the motivation to keep moving forward with needed changes. Like everything in life, change is ever-present. The question is will the change be pro-active or not?