McVey Fire area undergoing native plant restoration projects

Forest Service officials work to bring native Ponderosas to the Central Black Hills 80 years later.

HILL CITY, S.D. — In 1939, the McVey Fire tore the the Central Black Hills, taking with it more than 20,000 acres.

A Pile Of Non Native Ponderosa Pine Tree Remnants Cleared From An Area Of The Black HillsCommunity members, including high school students, worked daily to help extinguish the blaze, the fifth-largest fire in the Black Hills.

For their efforts, they were honored by the National Forest Service. It’s where both the Rangers mascot and the school’s use of Smokey Bear, the only school in the nation he is the mascot for, emanated.

However, more than 80-years later, the National Forest Service is still working to restore the forest to a more natural state.

In the aftermath of the 1939 McVey Fire, about seven miles northwest of Hill City, crews worked to plant new ponderosa pine trees in place of those lost across the large burn scar.

Decades later, with the trees matured, officials noticed they were not of the native variety.

The difference between the two types of ponderosa pine trees out here lies in the branches. A native ponderosa pine naturally sheds its branches, and will have about a 20-30 foot gap from the ground to where they start.

In a non-native ponderosa pine, branches do not fall during their lifetime. Instead growing low to the ground and becoming a hazard to the area.

And even though they are no longer as big a threat, mountain pine beetles also add an increased fire risk.

Around 40 tons of dead and downed timber per acre from the beetles have been accounted for. And should a fire be fueled by the remnants on the ground, the low-hanging branches could be used as an access point to higher areas.

“Those limbs capture moss and lichen. Which, as the fire goes through,” Mystic Ranger District Fuel Specialist Matt Daigle said, “Then those act as a ladder to allow the fire to climb into the canopy.”

Since 2019, The forest service has worked to remove the non-native ponderosas.

In areas that have been cleared, officials are working to make sure native specimens are planted in their place.

“Our plan is to get cone collection contracts moving. We’ll collect cones from a superior seed source here on the Mystic District,” Mystic Ranger District Timber Staff Officer Scott Albrecht said. “And then from there, we are going to move them down to the Bessey Nursery down in Nebraska where they will grow seedlings for us. And then we will come back and replant those seedlings.”

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