SPEARFISH — Maintaining fence lines on public grazing lands is already a tough and tedious endeavor, and some years it could seem like the whole world is conspiring against you. So what else could 2020 bring to the forest but two tornados toppling trees and fences.
“In my little pocket of the forest, I guess we’re just blessed with an abundance of weird weather, and no forest management, and pine beetles,” said local rancher Aaron Thompson. “It’s kind of just the perfect storm to wreck a guy’s ability to maintain fences up here.”
Thompson manages, among others, a grazing allotment near cement Ridge, an area which he has used to sustain his cattle herd in summer since 2010.
Thompson’s Cement Ridge allotment is in a portion of the Black Hills National Forest, which has not been commercially logged for the better part of 30 years.
“What that did was, it created a really late-stage succession up here, to where all of the trees were really old so they were more susceptible to the pine beetle when it came through,” he said.
Thompson said the pine beetle infestation helped set the stage for a series of years with significant tree fallings, which caused massive destruction to his fence lines.
“Consequently a ton of timber came down on the fence, and we went through … and got it put back together. It was a ton of work, but we did it anyway. And then the next year you go back and it was the exact same thing,” he said. “Those pockets of dead timber; you get one cleaned up and then another one would open up the next year, and then another one, and then (Winter Storm) Atlas hit in ’13.”
The early October storm dumped about five feet of heavy snow, coupled with strong winds, sent dead standing trees to the ground.
The cleanup and fence repair from Winter Storm Atlas and the previous years, along with the average wear and tear associated with maintaining fence, kept Thompson busy for the majority of the following five years.
“Then in June of ’18, we had a tornado come through here. It started over sort of Grand Canyon and over to Moskee (Wyo.) ground up through Pole Cabin Draw right up over the top of the (Cement Ridge Lookout) tower and over in to private land around the top of Tinton,” he said.
The EF1 tornado was on the ground for 19 miles, according to the National Weather Service.
Fortunately for Thompson, that tornado ran through the southern portion of his allotment, while his cattle where feeding in the northern pasture.
“If it had been a year when we turned down the south (pasture), they would have been right in the middle of it when it came through. It would’ve been really ugly,” Thompson said.
Most of the rest of that summer was spent just cleaning up the trail of destruction left by that tornado.
“We didn’t get anything done that year, it was just a free-for-all up here,” Thompson said. “We didn’t get all of it put back up after the tornado, but we got a lot of it put back together.”
All told, the tornado of 2018 destroyed around eight to 10 miles of fencing between Thompson and two other permittees in the area. The summer of 2019 seemed to be a blissfully peaceful season by comparison for Thompson, but all of the upheaval from the past half-decade had marred the land.
“In ’19, nothing too awful happened. We were getting there,” he recalled. “Then this spring I come up … and here’s all these trees tipped over on my nice new fence again, which was demoralizing to say the least.”
Because so many of the older trees had been uprooted and knocked down in such rapid-fire succession, the newer, younger trees that were growing in their place didn’t have the added protection from the elements provided by larger, stronger predecessors.
“There’s always been kind of an old wives tale about if you go through and remove a bunch of timber, what you leave is then weaker,” Thompson said.
And weaker they were. The damage from the July 6 tornado, an EF2, was so extensive Thompson had to hire a crew to fix the fence line in order to make the deadline for fence repairs, set by the National Forest Service.
“Four guys worked for a week, and on the fourth day … they called me and said, ‘Ahhhh hey, something happened up here last night, all the stuff that we had done has got trees on it again and is ruined,’” Thompson said. “And that was the second tornado that went through up here.”
The EF1 tornado followed a similar path as the June 2018 storm weather officials said.
Since then, Thompson said there has been another tornado through his area and something the weather service categorized as “a straight-line wind event.”
He said the Forest Service has been very understanding throughout the anomalous weather.
“They’ve been really understanding through all this. They’ve been super good partners in giving us time to work through this,” he said.
Thompson explained that as the allotment holder, it’s his responsibility to have at least a percentage of all his fence repairs completed by June 16.
“We have a responsibility to maintain all range improvements, and there’s guidelines,” he said. “It doesn’t happen very often, but you could end up losing your allotment over the deal.”
Although the past few years have provided Thompson with some unique challenges, he said managing his grazing allotments is one aspect of being a rancher he enjoys the most.
“This is one of my favorite parts of my job. This so closely resembles recreation that a lot of people do in the forest, that it’s almost indistinguishable,” he said. “The simple fact that part of my job description is, ‘get in your Jeep, go drive around the forest and look at stuff,’ that’s pretty cool.”
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