Tree Farmer Paul Schipke
S.D. Tree Farmer Paul Schipke: Restoring Forestland from Catastrophic Fires
Nestled in the gorgeous Black Hills of South Dakota sits Paul and Julie Schipke’s Tree Farm. Sharing a love of nature, they had owned their property for years, caring for it and following best management practices, when on June 29, 2002, the Grizzly Gulch Fire swept through their community destroying more than 10,000 acres, including their 200-acre Tree Farm. The weather that summer had been hot and dry. Because of this, a power line sagged too low and ignited a blaze on trees close by. With the forests in the area overgrown and thick, they quickly spread across multiple properties growing in size and nearly reaching the town of Deadwood, South Dakota.
“Not only did it burn, but somewhere close to 75% of our forest was burned so badly that there were no trees, no seed trees, there was nothing to regenerate,” Paul said.
The Schipkes were lucky though, thanks to their management and defensible spaces around their house, they did not lose their home. But not everyone was prepared – the fire took five to six houses with it. After the fire was contained and residents in the Schipke’s neighborhood were allowed back to their homes after a 10-day mandatory evacuation, Paul and Julie immediately began discussing what they would need to do to restore the land. “The first thing was to stabilize the watershed (creeks and streams) that flows into our major public water for Deadwood,” Paul recalled. A federal and state response team was there within a few days immediately stabilizing the creeks with logs and planting grasses to prevent erosion.
Then Paul and Julie set their sights on the forest itself. They arranged a salvage logging of the property, which they were able to do in the first three to four months, before wood-boring beetles destroyed the logs. This was further beneficial because it also reduced the fuels on the ground in the event that another wildfire struck their property in the future. With the help of many friends and neighbors, the Schipkes continued to hand seed a grass and pine tree seed mix on about 50 acres. “This all had to be done on foot and with backpacks carrying the seeds because the terrain was too rough and there were too many downed trees,” Paul said. The following spring, the Schipkes continued to replant, this time with pine seedlings. Due to the rocky and steep terrain, each tree had to be hand planted with a Dibble bar.
Cindy and Steve Mitchell, Paul and Julie’s neighbors, offer their help hand planting seedlings.
Between planting, the Schipkes did everything they could to continue cleaning up after the devastating fire, working to reduce the possibilities of future catastrophic wildfire. But as frequently happens with high intensity fires, they were inundated with invasive weeds.
“It was a serious problem – we had to spray where we could from roads, trucks and ATVs, but then we also did a lot of backpack spraying to get to areas that we couldn’t reach with machines on the steep property,” Paul said. “It’s over 10 years later and we’re still spraying weeds.”
On top of Paul and Julie’s clean-up, they also purchased an adjacent 100 acres that had also been burned by wildfire, and helped restore it as well. This brought the total acreage of wildfire-damaged land recovered with Paul and Julie’s help to a staggering 300 acres.
The Schipke’s land has made a remarkable recovery due to their diligence and determination to do just that. Since 2003, they have planted 20,390 total tree seedlings by hand on their property. Now they even have trees that are about eight to 10 years old and four to seven feet tall. Paul is proud to say their land is starting to get the look of a forest back. “Though the fire was pretty devastating for our timber production and overall forest health, the open canopies and young growing forest brought in new birds, which was a welcomed addition to our land after the fire,” Paul said. Paul and Julie found that the bird numbers and variety of bird species, like raptors and bluebirds, actually increased after the fire.
Paul and Julie’s land today, almost 15 years after the wildfire, thanks
to their dedication to restoring the land and help from friends, family
and the community, bears no resemblance to a wildfire-stricken property.
Today, the Schipkes are proud to say their land is stable, healthy and diverse and has recovered nicely. They have done what they can to share their story in the community and to help other neighbors better prepare as well. “People underestimate what’s involved in these fires, but the property is starting to look good,” Paul said. “Julie and I are quite proud of it, and it’s coming back.”