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Custer State Park

Despite extensive fire damage done to the park in general, Custer State Park’s trails remain safe and open for the park’s many winter activities.

CUSTER, S.D. - Fire damage won’t hamper Custer State Park winter trail activities

Despite more than 54,000 acres of Custer State Park being consumed by the Legion Lake Fire, those looking to snowmobile, snowshoe, cross-country ski, or enjoy the park’s trails this winter will be pleased to know they’ll be fully operational.

According to Kobee Stalder, Visitor Services Program Manager, the park’s regular trails are up and running and the visitor center has already begun their free rental of snowshoes.

In fact, despite having endured the third-largest forest fire in Black Hills history, the official 2018 trail map won’t have been altered at all.

“We ran all of our trails after the Legion Lake fire and surprisingly they were all in really good shape,” said Stalder. “There was some minor maintenance that had to be done to some of them, but we’ve already done that.

Stadler said the park’s biggest concern with the trails is tree snags from damaged trees, but that fire-fighters and park staff have already cut down those which they believed posed an imminent threat.

“Right now our trails are looking good, and we have just enough snow on the ground for people to go snowshoeing,” said Stadler, speaking last Thursday ahead of the weekend storm which dropped more snow

“We’re pretty happy with how everything shook out after the fire,” he said, “things could have been a lot worse.”

Stadler says the trails weren’t as affected by the fire as they initially believed they might have been, and all of the trails have been, and continue to be, evaluated by park staff, including the staff engineer.

“We’ve had people on (the trails) multiple times over these last couple weeks, we’re always constantly checking them,” says Stadler.

So how exactly can a fire affect a forest trail system? “The biggest thing is obviously blockage of the trails,” said Stadler, “trees that have come down on the trail due to fire. Erosion is also a big concern.”

According to Stadler, wildfire causes erosion by removing native plants and ‘forest-litter’ along the forest floor that would normally protect the soil from eroding down slope. In spring, when snow begins to thaw and rain falls, mud slides and other erosion issues may present problems for the trail system.

There’s still work to be done; in fact the parks service will likely be monitoring the effects of the fire and providing erosion control and maintenance for the next five to 10 years.

“We’ll do things like reseeding areas, we’ll control weed growth to allow native plants to grow, and we’ll make sure that the forest floor has a good base,” said Stadler, all things to ensure that the forest grows back to its natural state.

“It’s a long process after a fire of that magnitude,” he says.

Stadler says he’s interested to see what happens when the snow melts after this winter and the spring rains come, but for now, all winter activities should be able to be enjoyed fully.

Stadler stresses that the trails are generally safe for users, but suggests that like with any outdoor activity, trail users should remain aware of their surroundings. Fire-weakened trees can fall without warning, which is why maintenance to address potential threatening trees was done quickly after the fire, but users should still keep in mind that they are moving through a fire-damaged area and be vigilant nevertheless.

“We wouldn’t put people (on the trails) if we thought they were dangerous, but you never know,” said Stadler. “We’ve already gone through the trails and gotten rid of the imminent threats…but just like anywhere be aware of your surroundings.”

Winter sports enthusiasts will be happy to know that recent snowfall has improved conditions not just in Custer State Park, but throughout the Black Hills. According to Dana Garry-Reiprecht, Trail Manager at the Black Hills Trails Office, even though 350 miles of trails had been opened as of Dec. 15, most had been listed as being in poor condition until recently.

As of last Thursday Garry-Reiprecht stated that off-trail riding was still “iffy,” but that too should be improved due to this weekend’s snow accumulations.

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