North Dakota Experimental Forest a Surprise Success

A small forest that took root as an experiment some 70 years ago remains a largely overlooked oddity in a state known as the least-forested in the nation. But it has helped grow jobs and sprout millions of seedlings far beyond North Dakota.

DENBIGH, N.D. − A small forest that took root as an experiment some 70 years ago remains a largely overlooked oddity in a state known as the least-forested in the nation. But it has helped grow jobs and sprout millions of seedlings far beyond North Dakota.

The 636-acre Denbigh Experimental Forest was established in 1931 by the federal government to test which types of trees would survive the harsh climate and sandy soils of the upper Midwest.

More than 40 species were planted from throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. Today, about 30 species not only survive, but thrive, said Roy Laframboise, a nursery manager with the North Dakota Forest Service in nearby Towner.

"It's time to take the 'experimental' out of the name," Laframboise said. "A tremendous amount of tree species have passed the test of time."

The hardy seed stock from the forest is highly sought after. The nursery sells about 1.3 million seedlings a year, about 40 percent of which come from the forest, Laframboise said. Tree plantings from the forest have provided wind protection for crops, communities and wildlife throughout the United States and Canada, he said.


"This forest has been very important to the state of North Dakota, and it continues to make tremendous contributions," Laframboise said.

Eighty-nine-year-old Helen Carpenter remembers when the forest was planted. Its seed supply has helped provide many jobs in Towner, where Carpenter lives, including her own job at the nursery the last 43 years.

Carpenter sorts and packs seedlings for shipment, working alongside about 35 people, most of them elderly. She was one of three women who used to climb large conifer trees to pick their cones. She was taken off that job a few years ago, but claims she can still shimmy a 40-foot-tall pine tree.

"I'm proud of this forest, definitely," Carpenter said.

It's likely the only forest in existence that requires a sign from the highway pointing out that it is, indeed, a forest, said Tom Berg, a state forester in Bottineau.

"It just looks like another windbreak out there until you get close enough to it," he said.

Much of North Dakota is prairie, and less than 1 percent of the land is forested.

Except for occasional gun blasts from squirrel hunters, there is quiet within the mile-square Denbigh forest. Signs point out stands of Scotch pine, Siberian larch, Black Hills spruce, Russian olive, Rocky Mountain juniper and other species.

Wild turkeys, porcupines, elk and an occasional moose are found here.

Spent shotgun shells and deer tracks are common on the forest floor, spongy from layers of pine tree needles and other vegetation. This is ground that was once over-plowed and overgrazed during the early part of the 20th century, leaving wind-blown sand dunes and economic hardship.

"This once looked like the Sahara Desert," Laframboise said. "The transformation has made this an extremely unique place."

McHenry County residents and state officials pushed the U.S. Forest Service to plant trees on the land, similar to efforts in Nebraska and Kansas at the time. The idea was to provide a source of trees to farmers for windbreaks and timber for barns, fences and telephone poles.

"It was done to stabilize the soil and to stabilize the economy," Laframboise said.

Proponents envisioned a forest as large as 480,000 acres that would cover parts of McHenry, Pierce and Bottineau counties.

R. Douglas Hurt, who heads the history department at Purdue University, said experimental forests were common in farm states in the 1930s. "They are amazing footprints of the past," he said.

Experimental forests were part of a larger plan by Franklin Roosevelt to plant a 100-mile wide "shelterbelt zone" from North Dakota to north Texas, Hurt said. The tree-planting plan was intended to reduce wind erosion and eliminate dust storms, using local labor from a Depression-era jobs program.

Hurt said the idea was thought too grandiose by many, including foresters, and it quickly faded with the onset of World War II.

"It was a make-work program that fizzled out and was dead-in-the-water when all the money was dedicated to the war," Hurt said. "And of course after 1942, there was no longer an unemployment problem in the United States."

The U.S. Forest Service manages the Denbigh forest, but hasn't allocated any money to it for years, Laframboise said. The agency used to give a few thousand dollars annually to the state for trails, firebreaks, brush clearing and weed control.

Today, the focus is mainly on the more than 1 million acres of grasslands in the state, said Bryon Stotts, a forester at the agency's Lisbon office.

"It is an interesting and unique place," Stotts said of Denbigh forest. "But it has been feral land that has been left alone to do what it's doing."

Stotts said he sees tourism and recreational opportunities for the forest, but getting the money to build trails and facilities has been tough. The federal agency is looking for volunteer groups to help out with maintenance.

"We'd like to make it something more than it is now, because it certainly has that potential," Stotts said.

Besides supplying seed stock for the state tree nursery at Towner, members of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in Rolette County are allowed to harvest aspen trees from the forest to build replica lodges, Stotts said.

Laframboise worries the Denbigh forest may remain a mystery along the side of U.S. Highway 2, and that someday it will be forgotten.

"I'd like to see more interest in it so more people can appreciate it," he said. "I believe states that don't have many trees have a greater appreciation for them."

Source: Associated Press