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Replanting a forest, with 'hoedads' and hard work

1.7 million trees planted in Jasper Fire area since 2003

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The people involved in reforesting the Jasper Fire area have patience in spades — and in hoedads.

A hoedad is the ax-like tool that members of tree-planting crews wield as they punch holes to plant pine seedlings within the 130-square-mile area of the fire. The massive blaze, set by an arsonist in 2000, remains the largest forest fire in the recorded history of the Black Hills. 

Beginning about 10 miles west of Custer, a sudden scarcity of trees still clearly marks the fire’s footprint. But here and there on the vast and open landscape, clusters of ponderosa pines have been taking root since 2003.

That was when Timothy Gilg, a contracting officer representative for the Black Hills National Forest, began administering the effort to plant trees in the burned area. He’s still at it 15 years later, and although the reforestation project has become a primary focus of the 52-year-old’s career, he will probably never see the full payoff.

“It’s slowly coming back and making pockets of green trees,” Gilg said. “But it’ll be a hundred years, maybe 50 years, to get back to the way it was.”

This year’s planting began April 9 with a crew consisting of about a dozen planters, plus a foreman and an inspector. Working by hand at a pace of 1,000 trees per planter, per day — give or take, depending on the weather — the crew expected to finish by the end of last week with a total of 160,000 trees planted. They concentrated on an especially barren 400-acre area 4 miles northwest of Jewel Cave.

In the 15 years since the reforestation project began, Gilg said there have been 1.7 million trees planted at a cost of about $1.5 million to the Black Hills National Forest.

The current contractor for the work is OC Forestry of Medford, Ore. Mexican immigrant Mario Ordonez said he started the company in 2012 after working as a crew member for a similar company. His own crews consist of fellow immigrants and migrant workers.

Members of the crew at the Jasper Fire area carried seedlings in large pouches around their waists. While walking, they swiftly punched holes in the ground with their hoedads, bent over to plant seedlings in the holes, and stamped dirt back into the holes with their feet. Some of the workers were capable of planting trees at a rate of one every 10 seconds.

Although some forested areas of the Black Hills regenerate quickly after logging or wildfires, regeneration is slower in the drier and rockier soil of the southern Hills, Gilg said. Additionally, Forest Service forester Nancy Bayne said it can take ponderosa pine trees 60 years to produce reliably viable seeds, and the relatively heavy seeds fall close to the tree; therefore, it could take centuries for nature to significantly reforest areas of the Jasper Fire.

The Forest Service hopes that human-aided reforestation will counteract soil erosion, restore cover and nesting sites for wildlife, and provide opportunities for logging.

Seeds for the project are taken from pine cones that are collected in the Black Hills under the terms of another contract administered by Gilg. Roughly every five years, or as the availability of pine cones in the broader forest allows, contracted workers gather up to 1,500 bushels of pine cones by hand.

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The pine cones are taken to the U.S. Forest Service’s Charles E. Bessey Tree Nursery in Halsey, Neb., where the cones are dried to extract the seeds. The seeds are grown into 6-inch seedlings at the nursery and transported back to the Black Hills for planting.

Gilg monitors representative clusters of planted trees to estimate the survival rate of each year’s crop. The rate was as low as 40 percent in some drought years, Gilg said, and an early effort to spread seeds from the air proved ineffective. In recent years, the survival rate has improved to 95 percent thanks to a sharpened focus on effective planting methods, and because of protective measures including biodegradable tubing that is installed around some of the trees to prevent damage from wildlife.

The trees grow slowly. Those that have survived since the first planting 15 years ago are now about 6 to 7 feet tall, Gilg said.

Since 2003, trees have been planted on a total of about 4,400 acres, which is less than 1 percent of the entire area of the Jasper Fire. That may sound insignificant, but Gilg said it’s part of a strategy.

“We’re trying to put pockets of pine back in there,” Gilg said, “and hopefully Mother Nature will fill in the rest of it over the years.”

Contact Seth Tupper at seth.tupper@rapidcityjournal.com

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Enterprise Reporter

Enterprise reporter for the Rapid City Journal.