RAPID CITY, S.D. — You can’t see it now because of the snow, but Hat Mountain is beginning to heal.
Years of use — and in many cases abuse — by riders of off-road motorized vehicles sliced up the sides of the steep, almost treeless mountain south of Deerfield Reservoir, leaving it open to erosion.
“It was a problem, especially because of the steep grade up there,” said U.S. Forest Service hydrologist Les Gonyer of Rapid City. “You’d get one set of tracks and when that got bad they’d move to the next one, and then the next one.”
Things began to change at Hat Mountain two years ago with a new travel management plan for the Black Hills National Forest. Instead of a previous system that essentially allowed off-road travel throughout the forest unless otherwise marked, the new system limits motorized travel to designated trails.
That helps protect sensitive areas like Hat Mountain, a high-rise of grass with a cap-like limestone top just off William Draw Road about an hour drive southwest of Rapid City. The mountain stands out in a forest thick with ponderosa pine.
“While there are several non-forested areas in the hills, typically they are prairies,” said Shirlene Haas, travel management coordinator for the Mystic Ranger District of the central Black Hills. “Hat Mountain is unique in that it is a mountain that has no ponderosa pine trees on it.”
The mountain also has some fairly fragile soils, “which is part of the reason it eroded so badly once the ruts formed and motorized-vehicle use became established,” Haas said.
Since that use stopped — at least among those who follow the law — work has begun on repairing years of damage. Crews spent time this year obliterating eroded trails and smoothing out ruts.
The first phase of the work included installation of a buck-and-pole fence by the Youth Natural Resource Program, a cooperative effort between the Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Boxelder Job Corps and students from several Native American tribes.
In the next phase, a Black Hills National Forest crew wiped out the illegal trails with a bulldozer. And the third phase involved erosion-control work, including the installation of soil-holding wattles and reseeding.
Gonyer figures the fixes have cost about $15,000, which includes Forest Service money and federal funding through the Pennington County Resource Advisory Committee.
Additional work next summer will involve adding interpretive signs explaining the travel restrictions, the restoration work on the mountain and why it is important, Haas said.
“The signs will let the public know what we did and why, that we’re rehabbing the place and to please respect the closure,” she said.
Haas coordinates travel restrictions throughout the Mystic Ranger District of the Black Hills. She said compliance has improved since the trail system was imposed two years ago, although there is still plenty of work to be done.
“The biggest percentage of users want to be in compliance,” she said. “It’s like hunting or anything else, with a minority of users who cause the problems.”
Enforcement of the travel restrictions is difficult, given the number of forest acres, the isolated trails and roads, and the limited staffing. Haas thinks that with education and time, compliance will continue to improve across the forest.
“We’re going from a public that had been used to driving motorized vehicles pretty much wherever they wanted to now being confined to a trail system,” she said. “It’s a whole new paradigm.”
Meanwhile, the focus on enforcement is key in areas like Hat Mountain, where unique features and past damage demand immediate action.
There is no responsible choice other than repair and protection, Gonyer said.
“If we were just to walk away from this, there would be a scar on the landscape for a long, long time,” he said. “It would be here for decades. The water would continue to run down the ruts and keep eroding the trails.”
Hat Mountain is still open to public use, as long as it doesn’t involve motorized vehicles.
“We encourage forest users to visit Hat Mountain,” Gonyer said. “But please respect the closure to help restore the mountain.”
Information from: Rapid City Journal, http://www.rapidcityjournal.com