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Black Hills Experimental Forest

Scientist in Charge: 

General Description

Photo taken near the Black Hills Experimental Forest.
Photo taken near the Black Hills Experimental Forest.
The Black Hills Experimental Forest (BHEF) is approximately 7 miles north of Pactola Visitor Center and 20 miles northwest of Rapid City, South Dakota on the Black Hills National Forest. This 1,374 hectare Experimental Forest is dominated by ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa var. scopulorum). Other trees on the BHEF include white spruce (Picea glauca) and quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides). Click here to take a virtual tour of the BHEF.

Background Information and History

The BHEF was established in 1961 with the original purpose of establishing a landscape on which to test, modify, and develop practices for maximum production of high quality timber, while exploring the effects of such practices on soil moisture relationships, game habitat, forage production for range livestock, snow accumulation and melt, streamflow, and other related uses.  It was also established to provide protection and control for long-term research studies that could be used to demonstrate land management practices.

At the time of establishment, the majority of the BHEF was ponderosa pine with the following three principal age classes: 25-year old even-aged stands; 70-year old even-aged stands; and 150-250 year old sawtimber stands that had a 25-year old understory.  Some of the younger stands had been thinned about 1934.  The sawtimber timber stands had been partially cut around 1959, 1941, and 1911.  In the mid-1980s, the Rocky Mountain Research Station, the Pactola Ranger District, and the Black Hills National Forest cooperatively developed a treatment plan and timber sale for the Experimental Forest. The treatment would provide diverse stand conditions over the area that researchers could study. 

Open the Black Hills Experimental Forest Virtual Tour in a new webpage:


Sikkink, Pamela G. ; Jain, Terrie B. ; Reardon, James ; Heinsch, Faith Ann ; Keane II, Robert E. ; Butler, Bret W. ; Baggett, L. Scott. , 2017
Rowell, Eric ; Seielstad, Carl ; Vierling, Lee ; Queen, LLoyd ; Shepperd, Wayne , 2006
Schmid, J. M. ; Mata, S. A. ; Watkins, R. K. ; Kaufmann, M. R. , 1991
Shepperd, Wayne D. ; McElderry, Sue E. , 1986
Markstrom, Donald C. ; Troxell, Harry E. ; Boldt, C. E. , 1983
Severson, Kieth E. ; Garrett, E. Chester , 1974

Ecological Information

Climate:The average annual temperature for the BHEF is 40.6°F (4.8°C), with mean annual lows of 8°F (-13.3°C) and mean annual highs of 79°F (26.1°C).  The BHEF receives an average annual precipitation of 24 in (61 cm), in which most falls between the months of March to October.

Soils:The soils are derived from igneous schists and granites; they are lithic in places but generally productive.

Elevation: 5,400 to 6,000 feet (1,646 to 1,829 m)

Topography: East-west ridge across the center.  Irregular slopes to north of the ridge, bench to south of the ridge, rolling upland further south and to the east of the ridge. 

Hydrology: There are two main drainages, one intermittent stream flows north in to the northeast corner of the area, and the other intermittent stream flows east, parallel to the south slope of the ridge.

Geology: The ridge is formed of Cambrian sandstone.  The remainder of the area is composed of Precambrian slates, schist, and quartzite with quartz intrusions.

Research – Historical and Present

Past studies in the Black Hills focused on the management of ponderosa pine forests for multiple resource outputs, including timber products and forage production for livestock and wildlife. The primary topics of research included the effect of tree density on timber production, wildlife habitat, range quality, and resilience to insects and fire. Research on ponderosa pine density-growth relationships is part of a west-wide effort started in the early 1960s to provide basic information on thinning responses in even-aged stands of ponderosa pine. Various long-term research projects were established to examine growth and regeneration of ponderosa pine trees.  Specifically, scientists were interested in the effects of clear-cut orientations (cardinal directions) on tree establishment and growth. Scientists also initiated a long-term provenance study to identify superior genotypes of ponderosa pine for local tree improvement programs.

Ongoing research studies are examining a wide range of ponderosa pine management topics including:

  • timber production and harvest
  • growth relationships of overstory and understory
  • impacts of spacing and density on ponderosa pine tree growth
  • management of mountain pine beetle infestations
  • management of wildlife habitat
  • reintroduction of prescribed fire
  • understanding the historical fire history, tree density, and spatial patterns of ponderosa pine forests

Recent activities in the BHEF have included implementation of a research study intended to examine the application of irregular selection silviculture.  Irregular selection creates an uneven-aged forest, rather than the even-aged forest commonly viewed across the Black Hills.  The goal of this research is to evaluate an uneven-aged forest structure’s resilience to wildfire, insects, and disease while documenting stand productivity.  In addition to these objectives, several surface fuel management techniques, including lop and scatter, pile and burning, mastication, and prescribed fire will be evaluated.

See Annotated bibliography for the Black Hills Experimental Forest for details on BHEF research.

Research Accomplishments

The Black Hills continues to contribute valuable long-term growth data that is used to develop and verify the Forest Vegetation Simulator (FVS).

Long-term Monitoring and Data

There are no recorded climatic data, but long-term data on ponderosa pine growth are on file at the Rocky Mountain Research Station.

Surface, Terrain, and Canopy Height Models

This data publication contains three raster datasets with a spatial resolution of one meter: 1) a digital surface model (DSM), which represents the highest lidar return in each grid cell; 2) a digital terrain model (DTM), a representation of the ground surface with vegetation and other non-ground returns removed; and 3) a canopy height model (CHM), a representation of the height of vegetation above the ground surface. 

Facilities Information

There are no facilities on the Black Hills Experimental Forest but you can take a virtual tour. 

Open the Black Hills Experimental Forest Virtual Tour in a new webpage:

Research Opportunities

Please contact the scientist in charge with questions about potential research opportunities or collaboration.

National Priority Research Areas: 
Climate Change; Bioenergy and Biobased Products