Some of you may have seen the news that an addition to Smith Grove was officially dedicated this past May. Regardless of whether you have visited the site before, you really owe it to yourself to visit the site in the near future. It is one of the more interesting natural areas in North Dakota. For those of you unfamiliar with Smith Grove, it is a stand of very old cottonwood trees on the west side of the Missouri River south of Washburn owned and managed by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.
Historically the gallery forest of the Missouri River was dominated by cottonwood. The annual flooding delivered needed water of course, as well as a new layer of silt and valuable nutrients. The flooding also created excellent germination conditions for cottonwood seeds which need saturated soils to germinate and get off to a good start. As a result, the Missouri River bottomlands were capable of supporting some large and extensive stands of cottonwood.
The construction of Garrison Dam and formation of Lake Sakakawea changed all that. Trees up river from the dam, of course, have been covered by the lake, and downstream flooding no longer occurs. As a result the conditions on the old floodplain below Garrison Dam are now more suitable to green ash. And that is exactly what is happening. The old cottonwood forest is no longer regenerating itself, and it is being replaced by a forest dominated by green ash.
Although there are a small handful of stands of large old cottonwoods near the Missouri River in North Dakota, those at Smith Grove are the most impressive by far. There must be close to a dozen of those old trees, some of which are approaching 300 years old, have trunk diameters of around 6-7 feet, and stand over 100 feet tall. They are an impressive sight. Some of these trees would have been centenarians when Lewis and Clark passed through the area on their voyage of discovery. But these are obviously old trees, and they may not have many years left before they die or are blown over. Some already have.
Smith Grove is easily accessible, and is located a few miles south of Cross Ranch State Park. So the next time you are in that area, plan on visiting these magnificent cottonwoods. Better yet, make the area a weekend destination. There is much to see and do in that part of the state.
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.
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