Dakota Datebook

Dakota National Forest

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Traditionally, stories involving both North Dakota and forests result in a bad joke, usually ending with a punch-line about the state’s only trees being telephone poles. While the jokes are made in good fun, they contain a grain of truth. After all, the state is the least forested in the country, with trees covering only about one percent of North Dakota’s total acreage. But despite the jokes, and the relatively few trees – well at least those that aren’t being used to support phone lines – North Dakota was actually home to a National Forest covering over 14,000 acres in present-day Slope County.
The history of Dakota National Forest began around the turn of the twentieth century. As ranchers settled in the region, they harvested large numbers of Ponderosa Pine for roof beams, fence posts and fuel. Hoping to better manage the state’s few trees, Governor Burke requested that a National Forest be established. Theodore Roosevelt eagerly agreed, and on this day in 1908, President Roosevelt designated nearly 22 sections of land in the southwest corner of the state as a National Forest.
For most, the prevailing image of a national forest is a large tract of trees covering picturesque mountains or rolling hills, but Dakota National Forest was not your typical woodland. While the countryside was certainly beautiful, most of the forest’s Ponderosa Pines had already been chopped down by the local population. As a result, the forest’s primary purpose was to serve as a nursery. Not only would the Dakota Forest provide a method for scientifically studying the northeastern most group of Ponderosa Pines on the continent, but the reforestation of the area would provide a stable timber source deep in the heart of the American Great Plains. Furthermore, the lessons learned by the Forest Service regarding the best methods of growing trees on the windswept plains could be passed along to North Dakotans interested in planting windbreaks on their farms or ranches.
Though established with the best of intentions, the planting operations in Dakota National Forest were not very successful. The region was too isolated and the number of trees to small to be of much use for lumber. And as a result of high administrative costs, Woodrow Wilson decommissioned Dakota National Forest on July 30, 1917. Today, most of the former forest is owned by private landowners and is a popular site for hunting. However, the Ponderosa Pines continue to flourish; attracting a number of scientists to hoping to study the overall tolerance of the Ponderosa to extremes of heat, cold and drought.
North Dakota’s only National Forest enjoyed but a short existence. However, it was not a complete failure. It protected one of the most unique stands of Ponderosa Pine in the country, preserved a location of pristine beauty and proved conclusively that telephone poles are not the only trees in North Dakota.
Dakota Datebook written by Lane Sunwall


Brooks, Chester L., and Ray H. Mattison. Theodore Roosevelt and the Dakota Badlands. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 1958. http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/hh/thro/throtoc.htm.

Davis, Richard C., ed. The National Forests of the United States. Vol. II, Encyclopedia of American Forest and Conservation History
New York: Macmillan Publishing Company for the Forest History Society, 1983.

“Geographical Record.” Bulletin of the American Geographical Society 41, no. 4 (1909). http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/199409.pdf [accessed November 16, 2009].

Potter, Loren D., and Duane L. Green. “Ecology of Ponderosa Pine in Western North Dakota.” Ecology 45, no. 1 (Jan., 1964). http://www.jstor.org/stable/1937103 [accessed November 17, 2009].

“Scientific Notes and News.” Science, New Series 29, no. 732 (Jan. 8, 1909). http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/stable/pdfplus/1634864.pdf?cookieSet=1 [accessed November 16, 2009].

USDA Forest Service. “Land and Resource Management Plan for the Dakota Prairie Grasslands.” (2001). http://www.fs.fed.us/ngp/final/pdf_plan_final/Dakota_Prairie_Plan/titlepage.pdf.

Zeleznik, Joe. “Tree Talk.” 2, no. 3 (2006).

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Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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