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Prescribed burn association looking to curb area cedar nuisance

BONESTEEL -- Let the fire burn. A mass of cedar trees along South Dakota's largest body of water has diminished grazing land for animals, which has caused a local organization to dub the area a "cedar glacier" and prompt area fire departments to ...

Eastern red cedar trees are pictured along the Missouri river near Lower Brule, which are being removed from 300 acres of Lower Brule tribal land as part of the Strikeforce program. (Caitlynn Peetz/Republic)
Eastern red cedar trees are pictured in 2016 along the Missouri river near Lower Brule. (Republic File photo)

BONESTEEL - Let the fire burn.

A mass of cedar trees along South Dakota's largest body of water has diminished grazing land for animals, which has caused a local organization to dub the area a "cedar glacier" and prompt area fire departments to ditch traditional practices.

Instead of racing to fight fires that aren't immediately threatening structures or property, the Mid Missouri River Prescribed Burn Association (MMRPA) wants firefighters to create a "blackline" for the fire to burn up to, and let the blaze flame out. This could include fires started by lightning strikes, a stray cigarette butt and other "minor" or natural causes.

But changing longstanding practices takes time.

"For 40 years, we've raced to every fire and put it out as fast as we can. That's part of the problem," MMRPA Member Sara Grim said Wednesday.

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The MMRPA is comprised of approximately 35 landowners in Gregory, Charles Mix, Brule and Lyman counties dedicated to conducted prescribed burns to control the cedar tree population and improve grassland health.

Rounding out its first year, the MMRPA is the first prescribed burn association formed in South Dakota and burned approximately 1,000 acres of cedar trees in 2016 with more to come in 2017.

The group of landowners with MMRPA believes burning the trees is more effective than shearing. When an individual or organization cuts down a tree and subsequently drags it across the ground to a pile, seeds may be dispersed, causing an even larger problem, MMRPA Vice-Chair Dave Steffen said. So, instead, the group is opting to "cut out the middleman," instead burning the plants.

And the results are overwhelming, Grim said.

In April, the MMRPA burned approximately 475 acres of her family's land in an effort to thwart an issue present since 1982.

The fire knocked down pesky cedar trees and, six months later, native grasses had returned to the land, while the trees had not.

"Once those little trees start coming back, they grow fast, but we didn't have a problem when it was done," Grim said.

Most often, the trees grow along the north-facing and east-facing slopes of hills along the river, and spread. The afternoon sun doesn't directly shine on these areas, creating a cool, moist area. Then, the trees grow outward from there, infesting thousands of acres, Steffen said.

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"In a survey I did of aerial photographs, 30 percent of Gregory County is covered in cedar trees," Steffen said. "You're losing production on your grazing lands - where we used to run 10 cows, we can only run three cows. If we have 100 percent calf crop, three have to pay taxes where 10 used to. That's an issue."

Prescribed burns take about a year to plan to coordinate with everyone involved and create a plan. On average, there are 15 days each year that are ideal for conducting a prescribed burn, though the "burn season" covers 90 days in the spring and summer months.

A burn could be done in winter, but it would be ineffective, Steffen said.

If there is snow cover, small sprouts are buried under snow banks and never get burned, rendering the attempt useless. Areas burned will likely have to be burned again every five to 10 years, ensuring the group won't see a shortage in work moving forward.

"You have to get the right weather conditions so you don't burn the whole country down," Steffen said. "And then you also have to wait until the snow melts and dries up so our equipment doesn't slide down the hill in the mud, which narrows burning time a little, too."

The MMRPA will hold its annual meeting at 5 p.m. Friday at the Community Room in Bonesteel during which it plans to discuss what it hopes to accomplish in its second year of operation. Personally, Steffen said he hopes the group can increase communication between those operating the prescribed burns.

Using walkie talkies, participants' communication is already sufficient, but there's always room for improvement.

Additionally, many of the landowners involved are aging, and "getting too old to be running up and down the hills," so Steffen hopes more young guys join this year.

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To be part of the MMRPA, an individual has to do a basic training course and attend and observe a burn before they are able to conduct or participate in one.

And the MMRPA isn't the only group working to eliminate the "invasive species."

In 2016, the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe Department of Wildlife, Fish and Recreation rolled out a four-year plan to remove trees on 130 acres of tribal land.

Through the United States Department of Agriculture StrikeForce program, the group is reimbursed for its efforts to remove the cedars, providing more dollars to control a greater amount of land.

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