Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The geographical extent of the National Forest System in the Great Plains is approximately equally divided between land designated as national forest and as national grassland. The national grasslands occur in semiarid environments that are characteristic of the greater portion of the Great Plains. With the exception of the two national forests in Nebraska, the national forests occur in areas of higher elevation, including many uplifted mountain ranges, where a cooler and more humid climate prevails.

Only three national forests are totally within the Great Plains: the Black Hills National Forest (South Dakota, Wyoming); the Nebraska National Forest (Nebraska); and the Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest (Nebraska). All of the Custer National Forest (South Dakota, Montana) is in the Great Plains except for the portion in the Middle Rockies west of Red Lodge, Montana, and another portion west of the Bighorn National Recreation Area, Montana. Approximately half of the Lewis and Clark National Forest (Montana) is found in mountainous uplifts that are surrounded by the Great Plains: the Big Snowy Mountains, the Highwood Mountains, and the Little Belt Mountains. The other part of the Lewis and Clark National Forest is located where the Great Plains end and the Northern Rocky Mountains rise to the Continental Divide. Almost half of the Helena National Forest (Montana), in the Big Belt Mountains east of Helena, and a portion of the Gallatin National Forest (Montana), in the Bridger Range and Crazy Mountains northeast of Bozeman, are also within the Great Plains. The three national forests wholly within the Great Plains and the parts of the other four that are within the Great Plains total about 4 million acres, a very small percentage of the 187 million acres in the 155 national forests found across the entire nation.

Many people are surprised to learn that the seventeen national grasslands that cover 3.8 million acres in the Great Plains are part of the National Forest System. This represents 95 percent of the total acreage classified in this category in the twenty national grasslands of the National Forest System. Originally, many of these grassland areas were plowed for farming, but because of poor soil, recurrent drought, and other factors, they were eroded and were purchased by the federal government during the 1930s and early 1940s and taken out of cultivation. They were managed by the Soil Conservation Service from 1938 through 1953. Through proper management, the grasslands were largely revegetated. A large portion of this land was transferred to the states and nonfederal and other federal agencies. The remaining land was designated by the secretary of agriculture as national grasslands, and in 1953 the Forest Service was charged with administering them. In 1960 an administrative order designated 3,804,000 acres as nineteen national grasslands.

Black Hills National Forest covers 1.25 million acres in western South Dakota and adjacent eastern Wyoming. It extends across much of the Black Hills uplift dome. The plains surrounding the Black Hills have altitudes of 3,000 to 3,500 feet, compared with an altitude of 7,242 feet for Harney Peak, the highest point in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains. From a historic lookout tower on the summit of Harney Peak, one has a panoramic view of parts of South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Montana as well as the granite formations and cliffs of the 10,000-acre Black Elk Wilderness, a unit of the National Wilderness Preservation System. Numerous caves, including Wind Cave National Park, are located on the limestone plateau that immediately surrounds the central crystalline core of the Black Hills. Two scenic byways providing access to the forest are the Peter Norbeck (70 miles) and Spearfish Canyon (twenty miles). The Forest Service provides more than 100 developed recreation sites. There are more than 600 miles of trails open to hikers, mountain bikers, cross-country skiers, snowmobilers, and horse and motorbike riders. Mount Rushmore National Memorial is surrounded by the national forest.

The Nebraska National Forest (142,000 acres) and Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest (116,000 acres) include the only human-planted forests in the National Forest System. The Nebraska National Forest consists of two different sections separated by 150 air miles. In central Nebraska in the Sandhills is the human-planted Bessey District. In northwest Nebraska naturally occurring ponderosa pine is found in the Pine Ridge District, which occupies the north-facing Pine Ridge Escarpment. Seventy miles north of the Bessey District in the Sandhills of north-central Nebraska is the Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest. Developed recreation facilities in the two national forests are primarily in the Bessey District. Visitors seeking a developed campground or lodging in the Pine Ridge District are well served by adjacent Chadron State Park, Nebraskafs first state park. There is a small campground in the Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest at Steer Creek. The 9,600-acre Soldier Creek Wilderness Area in the Pine Ridge District is one of only two units of the National Wilderness Preservation System in Nebraska (the other is at Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge). Also in the Pine Ridge District, south of the Soldier Creek Wilderness Area, is the Pine Ridge National Recreation Area. Horseback riding is a popular activity in both the wilderness and national recreation areas. The same forest supervisor in Chadron, Nebraska, who is responsible for the administration of the Nebraska and Samuel R. Mc-Kelvie National Forests is also responsible for administering three national grasslands: the Oglala National Grassland (94,480 acres) located west of Chadron in northwestern Nebraska; the Buffalo Gap National Grassland (595,538 acres) in southwestern South Dakota; and the Fort Pierre National Grassland (115,997 acres) located south of Pierre in central South Dakota.

The 1.3 million–acre Custer National Forest extends in a scattered pattern of over 300 miles from northwestern South Dakota to southcentral Montana. Much of the forest is surrounded by rolling prairie and farmland. In the Sioux Ranger District in southeastern Montana and the northwestern corner of South Dakota, the eight separate units of federal land are often described as islands of green in a sea of rolling prairie. These national forestlands are hills or mesas covered with ponderosa pine. Two significant National Natural Landmarks are located in this district: the Castles, a massive limestone uplift that resembles a medieval castle; and Capitol Rock, a white limestone uplift that resembles the nation's capitol. To the west, still in southeastern Montana, is the Ashland Ranger District, which has the largest grazing program of any national forest ranger district. The area is rich in coal and wildlife.

Four national grasslands are administered by the Custer National Forest. The 1,028,051-acre Little Missouri National Grassland in western North Dakota is the largest and most diverse national grassland in the United States. The grassland surrounds the Theodore Roosevelt National Park and consists of rolling prairie and spectacular badlands scenery. The Little Missouri National Grassland also contains the largest free-roaming herd of elk in North Dakota as well as the only herd of bighorn sheep, excellent populations of sharp-tailed grouse, numerous archaeological sites, and rich dinosaur fossil beds. This is cattle and oil and gas country. Trail riding, hiking, and big game and bird hunting are popular recreation activities. The Sheyenne National Grassland (70,268 acres), in the extreme southeastern corner of North Dakota, is composed of rolling sand dunes vegetated by tall prairie grass and contains the largest population of prairie chickens in the state. The Cedar River National Grassland (6,717 acres) is located in southern North Dakota along the South Dakota border west of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, and the Grand River National Grassland (155,075 acres) is located in northwestern South Dakota along the North Dakota border. They are composed of rolling mixed-grass prairie, some badlands, and river bottoms. The Canadian goose is common to this area, and pheasant, sharp-tailed grouse, other waterfowl, antelope, and mule and white-tailed deer are also hunted. The grasslands provide important seasonal forage for livestock.

The 1.8 million.acre Lewis and Clark National Forest is scattered over seven separate mountain ranges in west-central Montana. Almost half of this national forest is in the Rocky Mountain Division, which is located outside of the Great Plains. The six remaining mountain ranges, in the Jefferson Division of the forest, spring from the surrounding prairie lands, creating a majestic rise in the flattened agricultural landscape. The Highwood, Little Belt, Castle, Big Snowy, Little Snowy, and northern portions of the Crazy Mountains are included in this division.

The Thunder Basin National Grassland (571,971 acres) is located in the Powder River Basin of northeastern Wyoming and administered by the Douglas Ranger District of the Medicine Bow–Routt National Forests. Almost all of the grassland provides forage for livestock. The ancient sediments below the surface contain enormous coal, oil, and gas reserves; other resources include uranium and bentonite, a type of clay mineral with many uses. Six surface coal mines operate on the Thunder Basin National Grassland; the Black Thunder is the largest surface coal mine in North America. There are diverse recreational activities but no developed campgrounds and no potable water.

There are two national grasslands in Colorado–the 435,319-acre Comanche National Grassland in the southeast and the 193,060-acre Pawnee National Grassland in the northeast. and one in Kansas–the 108,175-acre Cimarron National Grassland. These national grasslands are administered as ranger districts of the Pike.San Isabel National Forests. The Comanche National Grassland is located in two separate units–the Timpas Unit near La Junta and the Carrizo Unit near Springfield. The Comanche is characterized by diverse and often spectacular landscapes, ranging from short and midgrass prairies to deep canyons and arroyos branching off the Cimarron and Purgatoire River valleys. The land is managed for many natural and cultural resources, including wildlife, recreation, water, livestock, and minerals as well as for the protection of archaeological, historic, and paleontological resources. Wagon ruts of the Mountain Route of the Santa Fe Trail may be observed in many locations. A wealth of paleontological, prehistoric, and historic sites can be experienced at the Picket Wire Canyonlands, which were added to the Comanche in 1991. There, along the banks of the Purgatoire River, is found one of the largest known trackways of dinosaur footprints in the world.

The Pawnee National Grassland is located in two units, one thirty miles east of Fort Collins and the other on the Wyoming border twenty miles northeast of Greeley. Photographers, bird-watchers, and hikers will find the Pawnee Buttes, in the East Unit of the grassland, an interesting landmark. The buttes are sedimentary rock formations, half a mile apart, rising 350 feet above the Plains. The cliffs in this area are a preferred nesting area for many birds of prey. The Crow Valley Recreation Area, in the West Unit, is the only camping facility in the Pawnee.

The Cimarron National Grassland, the largest parcel of public land in Kansas, is a midgrass prairie and is located in the extreme southwestern corner of the state. Rock cliffs, cottonwood groves, grassy fields, yucca, and sagebrush are scattered throughout the rolling to hilly land. There are ten fishing ponds, hiking trails, three picnic areas, and one campground. Also located on the Cimarron National Grassland are twenty-three miles of the historic Santa Fe Trail, the longest portion of the trail with public access. Oil and gas is being produced from twenty-three fields within the grassland. The White Arrow Travel Management System restricts motor vehicle travel in and along the Cimarron River corridor. It is designed to decrease the amount of resource damage caused by motorized vehicles, to preserve wildlife habitat along the river, and to protect the soil.

The Kiowa (New Mexico), Rita Blanca (Texas, Oklahoma), McClelland Creek (Texas), and Black Kettle (Oklahoma, Texas) National Grasslands are administered by the Cibola National Forest, with forest headquarters in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The first two are operated out of the Clayton Ranger District in Clayton, New Mexico, and the latter two are operated out of the Black Kettle Ranger District in Cheyenne, Oklahoma. The Kiowa National Grassland (136,417 acres) consists of two discontinuous areas in northeastern New Mexico. The westernmost of these two sections includes fifteen miles of the Canadian River Canyon, an 800-foot-deep canyon that forms a wildlife island for mountain lions, wild turkey, bald and golden eagles, mule deer, antelope, bear, Barbary sheep, and waterfowl. The one developed recreation site in the Kiowa National Grassland is the Mills Canyon Campground. There are still two miles of wagon ruts visible along a portion of the Cimarron Cutoff of the Santa Fe Trail. The Rita Blanca National Grassland (92,989 acres) straddles the border in the extreme southwestern corner of the Oklahoma Panhandle and the extreme northwestern corner of the Texas Panhandle. The two developed recreation areas in the Rita Blanca are the Thompson Grove Picnic Area in Texas and the Felt Picnic Area in Oklahoma. The McClelland Creek National Grassland (1,449 acres) is located midway between Amarillo and the Oklahoma border in the Texas Panhandle and has the distinction of being the smallest national grassland in the country. Its central feature is 350-acre Lake McClelland, with facilities for water sports, fishing, and camping. The Black Kettle National Grassland (31,286 acres) is almost entirely in western Oklahoma, except for a 575-acre tract that surrounds 63-acre Lake Marvin in the Texas Panhandle. There are two camping areas at Lake Marvin. Most of the other recreational use in the grassland takes place at Dead Indian, Skipout, and Spring Creek Lakes in Oklahoma.

The Caddo National Grassland (17,784 acres) and Lyndon B. Johnson National Grassland (20,309 acres) are located in north-central Texas, north and northeast of the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area. They are sparsely forested and provide grazing lands for privately owned livestock. They also provide recreation areas and lakes, hunting and fishing, and habitat for wildlife. Oil and gas wells are a common sight on the grasslands. The Caddo National Grassland contains three lakes, two of which have developed recreation sites. The one developed recreation area in the Lyndon B. Johnson National Grassland is at Black Creek Lake. The National Forests in Texas administer these national grasslands from the supervisor's office in Lufkin, Texas. The National Grassland Ranger District is located in Decatur, Texas.

See also PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT: Badlands; Black Hills.

U.S. Forest Service website.

Charles I. Zinser Plattsburgh State University

Zinser, Charles I. Outdoor Recreation: United States National Parks, Forests and Public Lands. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1995.

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