On this sunny day, Bryce Gerlach is visiting a timber-thinning project at Gilbert-Baker Wildlife Management Area in the northwest corner of the state. Gerlach, who is a forester funded by the National Wild Turkey Federation and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, likes what he sees.
“This is the project that is going to save Gilbert-Baker someday,” he says as he looks over this part of the Pine Ridge that, unlike other areas of the region, does not bear the scars of wildfire. Gilbert-Baker, north of Harrison, is recognized as a jewel among the eight scenic wildlife management areas that comprise more than 19,600 acres in the Pine Ridge.
Gerlach is surveying the northwest portion of the property, where sandstone ridges and buttes rise some 1,000 feet from the Hat Creek Basin and provide a sweeping view of the grasslands to the north. Mixed among the magnificent landforms and rugged terrain to the south is the towering forest of ponderosa pine — the iconic tree of the West for which the Pine Ridge region is named.
Gilbert-Baker is reminiscent of what once existed throughout almost all of the Pine Ridge, a roughly 10-mile wide escarpment that spans about 100 miles across northwestern Nebraska between the Wyoming and South Dakota borders.
Only 2% of the Cornhusker State is forested, so the pines and rugged topography here are especially valued and have long served as a destination for outdoor enthusiasts.
The management decisions of Euro-Americans and their descendants were not ultimately beneficial to the landscape of the Pine Ridge. Prior to the settlers’ arrival in the 1800s, lightning strikes caused periodic wildfires that burned in the understory of forest and boosted plant diversity. In addition to natural causes, American Indians used fire to burn the brown plant matter on the landscape to start afresh with green plants — an attractant that served well for hunting some of the 30 million bison that once roamed North America.
With motivations that included preserving lives and property, the first generations of Euro-Americans on the Plains extinguished wildfires at every chance, and hunted bison to near extinction. Consequently, pine stands, especially where logging was not feasible, grew thick. The result is what land managers call “dangerous levels of fuel accumulation.”
As periods of drought gain intensity with global warming, land managers know the potential for disaster looms heavy. The danger was especially evident, and realized, in 2006 and 2012 when more than 100,000 acres burned in catastrophic wildfires that raged across the landscape and charred trees from bottom to top. The wildfires’ toll was heavy as about 120,000 acres remain of the estimated 250,000 forested acres in the Pine Ridge prior to the 1950s.
Where possible, land managers thin the forest in a way to mimic nature. The result is decreased fuel loads and returning forest structure to historic conditions. The ultimate goal is sustainability.
In places such as Gilbert-Baker, however, the steep terrain that gives the land aesthetic appeal eliminates most practical means of thinning the forest. Moreover, while some pines have been harvested in the region, the market has not been strong enough to maintain high demand of timber there.
Thinning is a concept easily related during times of “social distancing.” If a fire reaches the top of one pine, it will spread to the crown of another nearby and continue raging as long as it can. Thinning keeps fires at an intensity low enough that trees distanced appropriately can survive such events, and the forest may even be better for them.
The project at Gilbert- Baker, where an old service road has been cleared of pines at a width of about 100 yards, is a prime example of methods being used throughout the Pine Ridge to make immediate impact.
Fred McCartney of the Nebraska Forest Service facilitates cost-share programs with private landowners and public land managers to best leverage available money. Much inspiration for his work, he said, comes from a first thing firefighters want to know when responding to a blaze: “Where are the sides of the box?”
That is, where is an accessible break in the trees where the fire can be stopped? Knowing such locations can help contain wildfire to established areas and prevent unrestrained spread throughout the Pine Ridge. With a system of firebreaks, the hope is to at least limit the size of wildfires.
“We’re building those box sides and communicating them to area fire departments,” McCartney said, as he points to a map of the Pine Ridge with areas shaded in various colors to show projects in progress and completed. “Absence of a commodity to pay for the work, this is the best approach; the best bang for our buck.”
A primary focus area of the collaborative effort has been the U.S. Highway 385 corridor, which runs north and south through the ridge near Chadron and features many private tracts interspersed among public land. Through cooperation between the Nebraska Forest Service, Game and Parks, the U.S. Forest Service and the many landowners, a large buffer has been created through thinning. In the event of another large wildfire, the area will be invaluable in efforts to stop it from moving east or west. An area of emphasis in the collaboration has been Chadron State Park. Situated along the highway, it had experienced valuable thinning prior to 2012 and, though that year’s fire burned through much of the park, it did not charge eastward. Since then, the park has undergone more thinning and the removal of burned trees.
The Strategy of Thinning
For thinning, land managers are strategic in selecting trees to cut. Gerlach prefers an approach he calls “groupy-clumpy.” With that method, trees are not spaced uniformly throughout large areas, but rather in small groups. This approach keeps crown fires from spreading, yet lessens the likelihood that the trees will be uprooted or damaged by the wind. The groups of trees also serve as a seed source.
Gerlach said about 2,200 acres have been treated on state wildlife management areas in the Pine Ridge with thinning and removal of “ladder fuels,” the brush and other vegetation that helps fires climb trees.
The other big public land organization in the Pine Ridge, the U.S. Forest Service, has completed about 4,000 acres of thinning and logging on lands primarily between East Ash Creek Road and Bordeaux Road.
Rick Arnold, a Game and Parks wildlife biologist who oversees the Pine Ridge WMAs, notes a silver lining in the cloud of 2012.
“Most of the WMAs that were burned in 2012 have tree regeneration that I do not see from other large fires like in 2006 and 1989,” Arnold said. “You can walk through the ’12 footprint and find 1- to 2-foot pines coming in.”
Also on the bright side, the wildfires of 2006 and 2012 garnered a lot of attention and prompted needed funding for some of the region’s forestry demands.