Forests are not the first things that come to mind when most people
think of South Dakota. Our state covers a little over 49
million acres. About 750 thousand acres are surface water in the forms of rivers, streams and lakes. Another 46.5 million
acres are farms, ranches and prairie. This leaves only about 1.7 million acres of forest land. Compare this to Michigan, a
state with only two-thirds the land area of South Dakota, which has almost 19 million acres of forest. While forests are not
widespread across South Dakota, they are still a vital part of our state's natural resources.
What Is A Forest?
A forest is more than just a group of trees. It is an assemblage of
plants and animals living together in a common environment.
Forests are often referred to by forest type. The forest type is named for the dominant tree species in that forest community.
For example, elm and ash are the dominant trees in many flood plain forests so the forest type is called elm-ash.
What Types Of Forests Are In South Dakota?
There are three natural forests in South Dakota. The largest in terms
of area is the Black Hills forest . This forest is primarily
composed of ponderosa pine, but also includes quaking aspen, Black Hills spruce, paper birch, bur oak and several other
species. About 27,000 acres are in the quaking aspen forest type and another 19,000 acres are Black Hills spruce. The
ponderosa pine forest type extends out from the Hills to scattered locations to the northwest and south-central parts of the
state, encompassing about 1.3 million acres.
The Black Hills forest provides habitat for wildlife and recreational
opportunities. It is also very important for timber
production. The Back Hills forest provides over 242 million board feet of lumber each year. This is enough wood to build
30,000 single-family homes!
The second largest natural forest is the flood plain forest that occurs
along the Missouri River and its tributaries. This
meandering forest provides stream bank erosion control, some lumber, firewood, recreation, and habitat for wildlife. The
largest forest type in this forest is the 100,000 acres of elm-ash forests along the Missouri and its tributaries. Next in size is
the 45,000 acres of oak found along the upper terraces and draws of rivers, and in the Northern Black Hills. The 30,000
acres of cottonwood forest, scattered along rivers and streams throughout the state, is the least extensive of flood plain
forests. The flood plains forest was once much larger in area. Dams and development have eliminated much of the original
On the extreme eastern side of the state, there are a few upland forests
. These scattered forests are found in the rolling hills
of Sica Hollow and Newton Hills State Parks. They contain trees typically found farther east, such as sugar maple and
While not natural communities, two other forests occur in South Dakota.
The windbreak and urban forests were created over
the past 100 years as European settlers moved into the state. Windbreaks reduce soil erosion, protect dwellings, livestock
and crops from the wind, and provide cover for birds and game animals. The urban forests provide cooling shade and beauty.
These two forests are composed of many of the native species already mentioned, as well as a number of introduced species.
Information on each of these forests can be found in separate habitat
fact sheets: Black Hills Forest ; Windbreaks; and
Urban Forests . The upland and flood plain forests have been combined into a Prairie Forest fact sheet. In the Trees and
Shrubs section of the S.D. Flora chapter you will find fact sheets on many of the important trees referred to in these forest
habitat fact sheets. You will notice that many trees are important members of more than one forest. Bur oak, for example, is
part of the flood plain and Black Hills forests. Green ash is found in native flood plain forest and is an important windbreak
and urban shade tree.
Brandle, J.R. and D.L. Hintz, 1987. An Ill Wind Meets a Windbreak. U.
of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska.
Ferrell, E.K., P.E. Collins and W.G. Macksam, 1957. Trees of South Dakota. Cooperative Extension Service Circular
Fowells, H.A. 1965. Silvics of Forest Trees of the U. S. USDA Agriculture Handbook No. 271.
Gilmore, M.R. 1977. Uses of Plants by the Indians of the Missouri River Region. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln,
Hoffman, G.R. and R.R. Alexander. 1987. Forest Vegetation of the Black Hills National Forest of South Dakota and
Wyoming: A Habitat Type Classification. USDA Forest Service Research Paper RM-276.
Keammerer, W.R., W.C. Johnson and R.L. Burgess. 1975. Floristic Analysis of the Missouri River Bottomland Forests in
North Dakota. Canadian Field-Naturalist 89(1):5-19.
Mall, G and S. Young, 1992. Growing Greener Cities. Living Planet Press, Los Angeles, California.
Dr. John Ball, Assistant Professor, Horticulture, Forestry, Landscape and Parks Dept., S.D. State University, Brookings, S.D.
David Erickson, Division Staff Specialist, S.D. Division of Forestry, Pierre, SD 57501. 1992.
Craig Brown, Urban Forest Coordinator, S.D. Division of Forestry, Watertown, SD 57201.
Publication of the South Dakota Forests fact sheet was funded
by the S.D. Department of Agriculture, Division of Forestry,