Custer National Forest
The rolling hills, river breaks, and scattered badlands of the Grand River and Cedar River National Grasslands sprawl across the Missouri Plateau of the Great Plains. Mixed-grass prairies dominate the landscape, and a few wooded draws occur where ground water is near the surface. The Grand River and its tributaries bisect the southern portion of the Ranger District; the Cedar River flows through the northern portion. Both of these Rivers flow eastward to the Missouri River. The Grand River and Cedar River National Grasslands comprise more than 161,000 acres of public lands interspersed with approximately 46,000 acres of private lands in Sioux County, North Dakota, and in Perkins, Corson, and Zieback Counties, South Dakota. These National Grasslands are administered by the Grand River Ranger District of the Custer National Forest. The District office is located in Lemmon, South Dakota.
The Grand River and Cedar River National Grasslands offer a wide range of recreational opportunities. Hunting, fishing, bird and wildlife viewing, sightseeing, camping, picnicking, photography, hiking, horseback riding, boating, waterskiing, and limited river floating are here for visitors to enjoy.
During the autumn hunting season, deer, antelope, grouse, and waterfowl are favorite game species sought by hunters on the Grasslands. The Ranger District maintains 1,000 acres of prairie dog towns in scattered locations.
Thanks to the partnership efforts of the Ducks Unlimited organization, the Grasslands also have some excellent waterfowl viewing and warmwater fishing opportunities. In cooperation with Ducks Unlimited, the Ranger District has improved waterfowl habitat through the construction of reservoirs. As an added benefit, some of these Ducks Unlimited reservoirs also provide habitat for warmwater fisheries from which fishermen can take largemouth bass, perch, and crappie. Fish have also been stocked in several other larger reservoirs constructed throughout the Grasslands.
Although there are no developed campgrounds or picnic areas on the Grand River and Cedar River National Grasslands, camping and picnicking may occur throughout these areas. Shadehill Reservoir, adjacent to a portion of the Grand River Grassland and just south of Lemmon, South Dakota, offers excellent camping, picnicking, and boat launching facilities that complement the visitor's experiences in the National Grasslands. Many people waterski, swim, and fish this beautiful reservoir.
The scenic beauty of the Grand River and Cedar River National Grasslands provides opportunities for sightseeing and photography. Whether you are traveling by vehicle, horseback, or on foot, these Grasslands offer the possibility of "new discoveries" over every hill. If you visit the area during the period of spring runoff, you may want to explore those portions of the Grand River Grassland that are accessible by canoe on the North and South Forks of the Grand River.
Shadehill Recreation Area: Just 13 miles south of Lemmon, South Dakota, Shadehill Recreation Area entices visitors to relax and take it easy while they enjoy the variety of opportunities associated with the 5,000-acre Shadehill Reservoir. Visitors can swim; fish for northern pike, walleyes, channel catfish and yellow perch; water ski; sail; canoe; or simply lie back on the sandy beaches and enjoy the sun.
Hiking is also popular, and there are abundant opportunities to view and photograph wildlife, especially the large numbers of shorebirds, grouse, pheasants, partridge, and waterfowl that are attracted to the lake. Rockhounds will enjoy the large variety of rocks, including calcite crystals and petrified wood, that can be found in this region.
The area surrounding Shadehill offers a treat to history buffs, as well. A large monument on the southeast side of the lake commemorates mountain man Hugh Glass who was mauled by a grizzly bear near this site in 1823. Left for dead by his companions, Glass made his way over 200 miles through what is now the Grand River Grassland to Fort Kiowa near present-day Chamberlain, South Dakota. Evidence of an 1874 expedition to the Black Hills by Custer and the 7th Calvary also can be found on a prominent hill overlooking Shadehill Lake. The steep bank just below this hill was the site of a large buffalo jump.
Shadehill Recreation Area has three well-maintained campgrounds, three boat ramps, two swimming areas and numerous picnic areas along miles of beautiful lake shoreline.
The Grand River and Cedar River National Grasslands were once the home of the grizzly bear, wolf, bison, elk, and black-footed ferret. Although these animals no longer inhabit the area, visitors may still see a variety of wildlife species, including pronghorn antelope, whitetail and mule deer, coyote, red fox, blacktail prairie dog, eastern cottontail and whitetail jackrabbit, badger, longtail weasel, and deer mouse.
These grasslands are on the western edge of the "Central Flyway" (migratory bird route). Canada geese, blue-winged teal and pintail ducks, golden eagle, red-tailed and marsh hawks, burrowing owl, sharp-tailed grouse, upland sandpiper, killdeer, western meadowlark, red-winged blackbird, cliff swallow, horned lark, and song sparrow occur here at various times during the year.
The grasslands have their share of reptiles, too, including the prairie rattlesnake, plains garter snake, bullsnake, great plains toad, northern short-horned lizard, and leopard frog.
The Grand River and Cedar River National Grasslands are home to numerous species of plants and animals. Grass and grass-like plants make up a major component of livestock diets and provide food and cover for many wildlife species. Some of the more important native grasses include needle-and-thread, western wheatgrass, blue grama, and threadleaf sedge. Crested wheatgrass is a very common introduced species seeded on land that was farmed.
Many wildflowers bloom throughout the growing season and bring color to the prairie. Flowers that are common to these Grasslands include wild crocus, phlox, penstemon, prairie wallflower, scarlet globemallow, soapweed, and sunflower.
Native shrubs, which are very important both as food and cover for wildlife include silver sagebrush, snowberry (buckbrush), buffaloberry, chokecherry, serviceberry, and wild plum.
There are also several species of trees native to the Grasslands. The most common single species is green ash. Other trees include American elm and boxelder, which are found in association with green ash in "woody draws," and scattered stands of cottonwood trees—found along portions of the Grand River.
The area surrounding and including the Grand River and Cedar River National Grasslands has a rich heritage. This area provided hunting grounds for the nomadic plains Indian tribes who left teepee rings, arrowheads, and petroglyphs scattered throughout the Grasslands. The prairies were also visited by early day trappers and explorers including Jim Hugh Glass and General George Custer.
European immigrants settled this area in the early 1900's using the Homestead Entry Act to acquire land. In response to substantial increases in farm commodity prices during World War I, these settlers put much of what is now the Grand River and Cedar River National Grasslands under the plow to convert native prairie to annual croplands. At first the conversion of these highly erodible soils appeared to be successful; rainfall was adequate and the lands produced abundant crops. However, the good luck of the settlers was short-lived.
When the war ended, prices fell sharply, lowering demand for farm commodities. Near the same time, the great drought of the mid-1930's began. During the "Dust Bowl" era, hot, dry winds were to take heavy tolls on the exposed croplands.
To minimize these economic hardships and consequences of the Dust Bowl conditions, the government purchased unprofitable homesteads under the Agricultural Adjustment Act. In 1935 these purchases were consolidated into the Grand River and Cedar River Land Utilization Projects, and a resettlement plan for the area was completed that same year. The Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act provided funding for conservation and rehabilitation of submarginal agricultural land and administration of Land Utilization Projects.
In 1937 the responsibility for these lands passed from the Resettlement Administration to the Farm Security Administration, Department of Agriculture. In 1938, administration of the Projects was again transferred, this time to the Soil Conservation Service (SCS), whose charge was to ensure the rehabilitation of the drought-devastated grasslands.
In 1940, at the urging of the SCS, local landowners formed the Grand River Cooperative Grazing Association, a nonprofit organization whose members would graze cattle on the surrounding federal land. Members of the Association were instrumental in the effort to re-establish vegetative cover on the land and to change land use practices. The Cedar River Land Utilization Project was administered separately until 1983, when the Cedar River Cooperative Grazing Association was formed.
By 1954, rehabilitation was essentially complete, and administration of these lands was transferred to the Forest Service. The Grand River and Cedar River Utilization Projects were assigned to the Custer National Forest and were formally named the Grand River and Cedar River National Grasslands in 1960.
The Grasslands Today
The condition of the National Grasslands today is a sharp contrast to their condition in the 1930's. The federal repurchase and resettlement programs and the rehabilitation and management efforts of the Soil Conservation Service, the Forest Service, and both Cooperative Grazing Associations have ushered the lands from a condition of windblown dunes and farmlands to well-grassed, productive rangelands.
Cattle grazing continues to be a significant activity on the Grand River Ranger District. The Grand River and Cedar River National Grasslands supply seasonal forage for approximately 14,700 mature cattle and their calves, and 1,000 head of sheep. This grazing activity contributes to maintaining the local rural economy and helps maintain economically viable ranching operations for over 115 families who are members of the Grand River Cooperative Grazing Association, and 12 ranch families belonging to the Cedar River Cooperative Grazing Association.
The Forest Service continues their partnership with both Cooperative Grazing Associations, not only in managing the range resource of the National Grasslands, but also in improving wildlife habitat, providing recreational opportunities, and ensuring the continued existence of many unique features and species. This management involves using pasture grazing systems, which allow forage plants an opportunity to recover from livestock grazing; developing high quality water for both livestock and wildlife; and matching the stocking rate to the forage production capability of each unit of land.
Hettinger, North Dakota: The Hettinger community is a hub of historical sites. South of Hettinger past Haynes, is the Bushy Banks encampment, a site frequented by the Indians and used by the Custer Expedition on its way to the Black Hills to investigate reports of gold discoveries. Also south of Haynes is the site of the last great buffalo hunt where, in 1882, a Sioux hunting party killed 5,000 buffalo from the last large, free-roaming herd.
The Dakota Buttes Museum in Hettinger is open daily during the summer and has an excellent collection of area antiques and historical artifacts. Mirror Lake Park and Campground welcome visitors to enjoy picnicking, fishing, swimming, boating, and the children's playground.
Lemmon, South Dakota: The pride of Lemmon is Petrified Park, a grand-scale collection of petrified wood and fossils assembled in the 1930's by O.S. Quammen. Quammen hired local farmers to collect the petrified logs and fossilized grasses and animals that comprise the 100 cone-shaped pyramids in the park. The park's centerpiece is a majestic castle constructed of more than 300 tons of petrified tree trunks and slabs of fossilized grasses and reeds. The Park's museum houses a large collection of antiques and artifacts from the Lemmon area and is open May 15 to September 15.
Bison, South Dakota: The first structure in Bison was made of native sod and served as Anna Carr's home and the town's post office. The Perkins County Historical Society has preserved this 1907 home in a steel structure to protect it from the weather. The Perkins Jail was the site of the last hanging in South Dakota in 1918. Earls Museum in Bison contains over 300 mounted bird species and a huge assortment of other animals from every continent in the world, excluding Antarctica.
Each of these communities welcomes visitors to take advantage of its modern lodging, excellent dining, and service stations. In addition, Hettinger and Lemmon have 24-hour convenience stores and campgrounds.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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