Custer State Park to aggressively log burned area

By Jason Ferguson

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Custer State Park has began a logging operation of 6,200 acres of park forest that was burned in the Legion Lake Fire. The ambitious project will see trucks running out of six designated salvage units with a goal of having the project complete by June 8.

At the Jan. 24 meeting of the Custer County Commission, officials from Custer State Park, the State of South Dakota’s Wildland Fire Division and the winning bidder for five of the salvage units, Nieman Enterprises, told the commission about the fire and filled it in on the aggressive logging operation that has already begun.

Park superintendent Matt Snyder said a little over 36,000 acres of the park burned in the fire when it started near Legion Lake and spread south of the French Creek Natural Area and between the Wildlife Loop Road and Blue Bell area near Hwy. 87.

Snyder said salvage operations generally are only around 1,000 acres and can last up to five years. This much more aggressive approach will see 70 loads per day of logs removed, with the park shutting down its interior gravel roads to visitor travel during the operation. Main arteries, such as Wildlife Loop Road and Hwy. 87, will remain open. Snyder said campers will begin showing up in the park in the affected areas—such as horse camp—and the park does not want that impeded.

Mark Hendrix, resource program manager for Custer State Park, presented the commission with a map outlying the details of the travel plan for the trucks loading with logs. The plan calls for log trucks to enter the park via Hwy. 16A from both the east and west and then travel in only one direction once they reach Wildlife Loop Road. The trucks will use Fisherman Flats Road to make their way to the salvage units, and will then proceed out of the park either by traveling south on North Lame Johnny Road out to Hwy. 79, or by taking North Lame Johnny Road to Hwy. 87 near Bluebell for a short stretch before getting on Lower French Creek Road and following it to Hwy. 16A. Routes out of the park are one way, as well.

Commission chairman Phil Lampert said he had been contacted by some residents of Lame Johnny Road about the project, who shared concerns about both safety and wear and tear on the road.

County highway superintendent Gary Woodford said he didn’t think the project would be too hard on the roads because they are still somewhat frozen, will be monitored throughout the course of the project by all parties involved and the project should be done before dust gets too heavy as it does later in the summer.

Commissioner Travis Bies asked the park if there was a plan to help with the affected county roads if it is required, and questioned what will be done if there isn’t enough spring rain to hold down the dust.

“Or are we just going to cross our fingers and hope it rains?” he asked.

Snyder said at this point, the park has no plan to help with county roads if issues arise, but said he could reach out to his supervisors in Pierre for assistance if it reaches that point.

“The last thing we want to see is the road get torn up,” he said. “We’re not going to walk away from it.”

Dan Buehler, head of Nieman Timber, said Nieman would have no issue with providing road assistance, whether it was in the form of gravel or magnesium chloride to help control dust.

Snyder said the park hopes to at best break even on the project, pointing out the park normally gets around $11 per ton from a salvage but will only get around $2 a ton for this one.

A landowner on Lame Johnny Road was present at the meeting and expressed safety concerns, pointing out landowners along the road lost fence in the fire and are concerned about animals and children approaching the road as they continue to fix fence, just as the park is doing.

She said she was also worried about all 70 trucks traveling down Lame Johnny Road at some point in the project after weight limit restrictions are enacted on Hwy. 87 by the South Dakota Department of Transportation sometime in the spring. The plan calls for the trucks to split evenly  out to Hwy. 16A and Hwy. 79 until that time.

There needs to be enough signs put up warning people of the logging activity, she said, and wondered if there was some sort of agreement the county could enter into with Nieman and Custer State Park to assure the road does not become a “disaster.” She also suggested speed limit signs near the project on Lame Johnny Road.

Buehler said all of the parties involved have met and discussed speed and safety, and said the trucks will be in constant communication. He said one ticket “goes a long way” in this type of situation, and said he had no problem with the Custer County Sheriff’s Office patrolling the area.

“We will continue to preach (following the speed limit),” he said. “We aren’t protecting these guys. They need to follow the rules.”

Jay Wickham, a fire management officer for South Dakota Wildland Fire, gave the commission an overview of how the fire grew, saying when he arrived on scene it was 30 to 40 acres and was moving toward homes behind Legion Lake.

Wickham said initially responders believed they could contain the fire to a small area, but the fire then hit large piles of logs in the area, producing flames 80 to 100 feet in the air and spotting the fire half a mile ahead. His idea to keep the fire “in a little box” soon “went out the window,” he said.

It grew into rugged terrain into the French Creek Natural Area and attempts to contain it there were thwarted by strong winds. Complicating matters was a lack of resources available in December, while many of the ones that were available were already in California fighting fires.

A State Emergency Response Team came on scene following the fire to assess the damage and determine what needed to be done in terms of erosion control, hydrology and the salvage logging. It assessed private land affected by the fire as well. The park is already looking at rehabilitation to make sure its neighbors are not impacted by erosion.

Thistle could be an issue this summer because of the fire, Hendrix said, as could weed infestation in general, which may require some aerial spraying. The park will constantly monitor erosion issues it may have and deal with them as quickly and the best way possible.

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