Black Hills Forestry: A History

Black Hills Forestry: A History

by John F. Freeman


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The first study focused on the history of the Black Hills National Forest, its centrality to life in the region, and its preeminence within the National Forest System, Black Hills Forestry is a cultural history of the most commercialized national forest in the nation.

One of the first forests actively managed by the federal government and the site of the first sale of federally owned timber to a private party, the Black Hills National Forest has served as a management model for all national forests. Its many uses, activities, and issues—recreation, timber, mining, grazing, tourism, First American cultural usage, and the intermingling of public and private lands—expose the ongoing tensions between private landowners and public land managers. Freeman shows how forest management in the Black Hills encapsulates the Forest Service's failures to keep up with changes in the public's view of forest values until compelled to do so by federal legislation and the courts. In addition, he explores how more recent events in the region like catastrophic wildfires and mountain pine beetle epidemics have provided forest managers with the chance to realign their efforts to create and maintain a biologically diverse forest that can better resist natural and human disturbances.

This study of the Black Hills offers an excellent prism through which to view the history of the US Forest Service's land management policies. Foresters, land managers, and regional historians will find Black Hills Forestry a valuable resource.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781607322986
Publisher: University Press of Colorado
Publication date: 01/15/2015
Edition description: 1
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

John F. Freeman is the founder and president emeritus of the Wyoming Community Foundation. He has a Ph.D. in early modern European history from the University of Michigan and is the author of High Plains Horticulture: A History and Black Hills Forestry: A History

Read an Excerpt

Black Hills Forestry

A History

By John F. Freeman

University Press of Colorado

Copyright © 2015 University Press of Colorado
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60732-299-3


Exploring the Forest

In the spring of 1897 Gifford Pinchot, acting as confidential forest agent to Interior Secretary Cornelius Bliss, endorsed the dispatch of his assistant, Henry Graves, to the Black Hills Forest Reserve to assess its timbering potential. Published in 1899, his report remains the primary written source for studies seeking to understand the nature of the pre-settlement forest. Although controversy remains as to the interpretation of the dynamics of natural disturbances, especially fires, the report does contain indisputable topographical facts that, combined with qualitative descriptions by earlier explorers, provide an overview of the forest setting.

Geographically, the Black Hills are situated between the Belle Fourche River on the north and the Cheyenne River on the south. They straddle the South Dakota–Wyoming state line, with the greater portion in South Dakota. "The Black Hills," Graves wrote, "constitute an isolated range of mountains with a general north-south trend, and are about 120 miles long and 40 miles wide." While the entire range is geologically part of the same uplift, the Bearlodge Mountains in Wyoming are topographically separated from the main body of mountains in South Dakota. Altogether, the Black Hills actually span about 120 miles from north to south and 70 miles from west to east.

Most striking, the main body of the Black Hills is encircled almost entirely by a treeless, arid valley from several hundred feet to several miles in width, known as the Red Valley or Racetrack. Between this valley and the surrounding plains is the Hogback, a continuous rim of foothills intermittently covered by stands of conifers, rising abruptly from 200 feet to 800 feet on the inner or valley side and sloping gradually down to the plains on the outer side.

The surrounding plains range in elevation from 3,000 to 5,000 feet; the Black Hills generally are about 2,000 feet higher. The highest point is Harney Peak, elevation 7,241 feet, in the center of the most mountainous range, which includes the Needles and the Cathedral Spires, towering granite outcroppings from steep ridges above canyons and valleys. The lowest point is southeast on the Cheyenne River, elevation 1,900 feet, just before the river flows onto the Great Plains.

Graves called the limestone plateau, which runs north to south near the South Dakota–Wyoming state line, "the main backbone of the Black Hills." The plateau is fairly level and broad, up to 15 miles wide, broken by numerous swales that run into ravines at the heads of creeks that, in turn, flow through deep canyons and most often sink into the ground before reaching the Belle Fourche or Cheyenne Rivers. A narrower limestone plateau is located on the southeastern edge of the Black Hills.

Although Graves did not specifically discuss climate, temperatures within the Black Hills have generally been less extreme, precipitation has tended to be higher, and wind velocity has usually been lower compared with the surrounding plains. In general, average temperatures decrease and average precipitation increases with higher elevations. Precipitation ranges from 16 inches to 29 inches annually, coming mostly during the months of April through July. The Black Hills have their share of snowstorms and occasional blizzards.

Graves estimated that the main forest reserve area was 2,600 square miles, of which 2,000 square miles were covered by trees. Overall, he described the Black Hills as "densely timbered, but the forest is broken in many places by parks and mountain prairies, and enormous tracts have been entirely denuded by forest fires." He attributed the broken condition of the forest — a large proportion of "defective and scrubby trees," windbreaks, treeless ridges, meadows, and mountain prairies — to "the destructive forest fires which have swept the Black Hills periodically for years and probably for centuries." He believed the way to preserve the forest was to encourage natural reproduction and to prevent forest fires.

By preserving the forest, Graves really meant preserving the commercially valuable ponderosa pine that made up 95 percent of the trees in the entire forest. At the outset of our story, therefore, we should acknowledge the place of the ponderosa pine in the plant kingdom. The ponderosa pine belongs to the division Pinophyhta (woody plants), order Pinales (woody plants with cones as reproductive structures), class Pinopsida (simple leaves or needles), and family Pinaceae (pines). Within that family, the ponderosa pine belongs to the genus Pinus (true pines), species ponderosa, from the Latin for "great weight," first named by David Douglas — a Scottish botanist traveling in Oregon in the mid-1820s — and then described and published in 1836 by Peter and Charles Lawson, Edinburgh nurserymen. In 1880 the Lawsons further divided the ponderosa pine into three varieties or subspecies, of which our subspecies is called scopulorum, from the Latin for "pertaining to rocky sites." Thus the full scientific name of the Black Hills ponderosa pine is Pinus ponderosa Doug. ex P. Laws. & C. Laws., var. scopulorum.

Since most plants have common names, which vary from time to time and from region to region, naturalists have found it wise to use their universally recognized scientific names as well. The case of the ponderosa pine is relatively clear because its scientific and common names are similar, though it also has been called western yellow pine, Rocky Mountain pine, and bull pine. In later years, when forest managers began to deal with entire plant communities and not just trees, scientific names would prove indispensable.

But to assess timber potential, Graves was charged with describing the character, extent, and condition of the tree stands in the Black Hills. Since the area had been surveyed and Graves had access to satisfactory topographic maps, he determined to approach his work by developing a simple classification system. At first, he distinguished between marketable trees ready to be cut and non-marketable trees too small to cut; then he divided marketable trees into three classes: (1) trees averaging 20 inches in diameter and 80 feet in height, with straight trunks free of limbs up to 50 feet, growing in "crowded stands" on rich soils in protected sites, the largest such stand west of Spearfish Canyon; (2) "old trees" with the same diameter as the first class but averaging 65–70 feet in height, clear of limbs up to 40 feet, growing in less crowded stands, more exposed to natural disturbances, and covering the greater part of the Black Hills; and (3) trees smaller and shorter than those in the first two classes, averaging 14–17 inches in diameter, less than 60 feet in height, and located on ridges and steep slopes where the soils were "stony and thin."

Among "old trees" in the un-timbered "original forest," Graves had seen clusters of non-marketable trees 40 to 100 years old. He was struck by the extreme density of these younger trees, from which he postulated ideal conditions for germination and growth of the ponderosa pine, foremost being location. "The old timber in canyon bottoms and side ravines is of superior development and quality," he wrote, "not only because the soil is rich and fresh, but because the trees are in protected situations." Graves observed that stands on north slopes tended to be of better quality than those on south slopes because of more moisture and protection from fires. Also, he noted differences between the granitic or pre-Cambrian soils found in the central Black Hills and the limestone soils of the plateau country. He saw no differences in growth where stands were equally protected but, under similar climatic conditions, found that seeds germinated more readily in the "stronger" (more alkaline) limestone soils. He described ideal stand density as high enough to promote natural pruning of lower branches, thus providing more perfect lumber, and low enough to allow for maximum growth by diameter and height: "Trees prune themselves better on poor than on active soils."

While acknowledging that he had stayed in the Black Hills for too short a time to ascertain the precise characteristics of the ponderosa pine, Graves did observe that natural reproduction appeared more than sufficient to ensure stand replacement. For example, he reported on a stand of saplings about 10 feet high with an estimated 7,000 to 8,000 trees per acre, far greater than today's recommended density for commercial timber stands. Again, he found the most prolific reproduction on broken forestland where older, seed-producing trees were evenly distributed or in small clusters not larger than 1 acre. Best growth seemed to occur along the forest edge and on hillsides where seedlings were exposed to light from above and on their sides.

Graves was the first to report on forest fires in some detail, to distinguish between severe and less severe fires, and to assess their effect on forest growth. He concluded that most of the Black Hills had been burned by severe fire roughly every half century. By severe fires, he meant fires that burned so intensely that they destroyed the upper soil to the extent that seeds could not immediately germinate and that severely damaged or entirely denuded large swathes of forest. By less severe fires, he meant fires that burned close to the ground, destroying seedlings and saplings but inflicting only minor damage on older trees.

Indeed, Graves marveled at the fire tolerance of older trees and how their growth covered over and healed their fire scars. He described the case of a tree "about six inches in diameter ... so severely burned that but three inches on one side had escaped injury. Not only had the tree succeeded in living, but the new growth had, within about 160 years, wrapped itself completely about the injured portion, even inclosing a disk of dead bark. A few years ago this tree was cut down for lumber and was apparently perfectly sound." The effect of ground fires on smaller trees was a mixed blessing. Where fires burned only the upper, undecayed layers of litter, ashes enriched the remaining humus and encouraged seed germination. But ground fires also destroyed seedlings, making room for a dense cover of grasses, shrubs, and, from his viewpoint, commercially useless trees such as aspen.

The oldest severe fire for which Graves found empirical evidence had occurred sometime between 1730 and 1740. By counting annual tree rings, starting from just under the bark toward the rings scarred by fire, he dated trees at 160 to 170 years old, placing their germination shortly after a severe fire. Similarly, he found fire scars from the period 1790–1800, thus trees 100 to 110 years old. Since electrical storms were common, Graves had seen evidence of trees struck by lightning that, in turn, had caused wildfires. Most susceptible to ignition appeared to be patches of dead and dying trees in which he had found evidence of "bark borers, a species of Scolytidae, working under the bark," the first written mention of what Andrew D. Hopkins later identified as the Black Hills beetle.

Regarding fires in the nineteenth century, Graves heard confirmation of his empirical observations. An early settler from Pactola, west of Rapid City, relayed conversations with Indians about their memories of severe fires around 1842, which they attributed to lightning strikes. Graves was unable to confirm stories told by the same Indians regarding fires their distant ancestors set as part of hunting for big game. Controversy remains about those stories and, if true, whether game was driven by fire from the central forest into the foothills or simply from the foothills onto the plains.

Although the extent of human presence in the Black Hills before the 1870s remains obscure, we do know that by the late eighteenth century bands of nomadic Indians were moving over the adjoining plains; as the availability of buffalo declined, Indians entered the forest in search of other big game. Pictographs found in the Black Hills suggest that the Lakota Sioux had become the predominant tribe by about 1800. As the westernmost group of the Sioux, the Lakota had migrated to the Black Hills from the upper Midwest. Originally a woodland tribe, it has been suggested that they camped within the forest during winter months.

While the movement of nomadic tribes before the late eighteenth century remains unclear, we do know that sometime during the early 1740s Pierre Gauthier de Varennes, sieur de La Vérendrye, a soldier and fur trader stationed in Quebec, commissioned a party to search for the Western Ocean. Leading the party, his two sons, François and Louis-Joseph, traveled around the northern edge of the Black Hills, proceeded as far as the Big Horn Mountains, then abandoned their search and returned to Canada. The first written notice of the Black Hills is attributed to them. In their journal, they described the Black Hills as "for the most part well wooded with all kinds of timber."

Although no European traveling in or around the Black Hills left written record during the second half of the eighteenth century, we can assume that fur trappers from several nations — France, Spain, Great Britain, and the United States — did travel in the area. Just prior to the Treaty of Paris in 1763, France had ceded Louisiana, including the Black Hills, to Spain as compensation for Spain's expected loss of Florida to Great Britain; by the Third Treaty of San Idelfonso in 1800, Spain secretly ceded Louisiana back to France. After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson sent his aide, Meriwether Lewis, with William Clark to explore the newly acquired territory.

After the La Vérendrye brothers, Lewis provided the next fleeting description of the Black Hills. On October 1, 1804, along the Missouri River a few miles upstream from the mouth of the Cheyenne River (northwest of Pierre), Lewis and Clark met a French trader named Jean-Baptiste Valle. He informed them that he had spent the past winter far up the Cheyenne River "under the Black Mountains." He described the mountains as "very high" with "great quantities of pine," noted that snow remained on some parts of the mountains throughout the summer, and reported that "a great noise is heard frequently on those mountains." The last observation contributed to the mystery surrounding the Black Hills in the minds of early American explorers. At an earlier stop, on September 16, Meriwether Lewis had found "Pine Burs" (cones) in driftwood a short distance up the White River from its confluence with the Missouri River. This led Charles Sprague Sargent, author of the monumental Silva of North America, to attribute the first collection of the ponderosa pine to Meriwether Lewis.

Thomas Nuttall, the English botanist who had helped classify the botanical specimens collected by Lewis and Clark, was part of the 1811 American Fur Company expedition led by Wilson Price Hunt, which followed the Lewis and Clark route up the Missouri River. There is no evidence that Nuttall collected in the Black Hills or that any member of the Hunt party entered the forest.

Not until 1823 do we get a firsthand written description of the forest itself. In the fall of that year, James Clyman — trapper, adventurer, and sometime diarist — accompanied the William H. Ashley expedition from St. Louis through the southern Black Hills, along the Cheyenne River, and west into the Powder River Basin. Though brief and inexact, Clyman did convey a general impression of the topography, from rolling hills covered by pine, "with here and there an open glade of rich soil and fine grass," to ascending ridges where, near the summits, the land became brushy with "scrubby" pine and juniper. Descending westward, the ridges turned into ravines so narrow that "horses had no room to turn," until the party reached a long plateau that eventually descended to the Cheyenne River.

The little that is known about the Black Hills between 1823 and the military expeditions of the 1850s likely came from Indians who traded at Fort Laramie, at the spot on the plains where today the Laramie River flows into the North Platte River. It is said that the Indians traded gold nuggets from the Black Hills for merchandise at Fort Laramie. Another source of information may have been a trading post known as Ogalallah, which apparently operated sporadically during the 1830s at the confluence of Rapid Creek and the Cheyenne River east of present-day Rapid City. Most likely, fur traders had built temporary and seasonal cabins along creeks in the foothills, but no records about the forest remain.

In the course of westward development, the Black Hills was the last area to be explored. During the 1840s, the American military had established permanent posts at Fort Pierre to the east, Fort Kearny to the southeast, and Fort Laramie to the southwest. Between 1855 and 1875, the military sent a series of expeditions into the area for the purpose of protecting emigrants along established trails and reconnoitering new trails for prospectors en route to Montana.


Excerpted from Black Hills Forestry by John F. Freeman. Copyright © 2015 University Press of Colorado. Excerpted by permission of University Press of Colorado.
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Table of Contents

Map of Black Hills National Forest vii

Preface ix

Acknowledgments xiii

Introduction 1

1 Exploring the Forest 7

2 Unbridled Use of the Forest 21

3 Federal Administration of the Forest Reserve 33

4 Rooseveltians and Black Hills Forestry 51

5 Pinchot's Legacy: Managing the Timber 69

6 Peter Norbeck's Intrusion: Travel and Tourism 89

7 Forestry for Community Stability and Economic Growth 107

8 Advent of Public Participation 133

9 Perils of Accommodation 155

10 Forestry and Forest Industry 169

11 From Confrontation to Compromise 189

11 Forest Values, Forest Service 213

Bibliography 227

Index 239

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