I thought the bare hills and the eroded draws along the Missouri River in South Dakota were just symbols of a tough country. But during a tour last week of the Mortenson Ranch near Hayes I learned that they are more than likely signs of an abused land.
“This country was full of trees in the 1800s, until the government decided to put a family on every section,” says Clarence Mortenson, a Lakota from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and a fifth-generation rancher who has been working since the 1940s to restore their family ranch to its former state. “No way, a family could make a living even then on 640 acres in this country. They cut all the trees down for lumber and fuel and plowed everything up trying to farm.”
Clarence brought the trees and grasses back on his land by building dams where ever possible. In the draws, he built damns to stop erosion and create ponds. On broad, flat fields he built spreader dams to spread out the water to recharge the soil. Once the soil profile filled up, the springs began flowing again. And where the springs emerged, native plants took hold. Clarence and his family tried to help Mother Nature along by spreading seeds by hand.
Clarence, now retired, says he can die happy now that the land is coming back to life. His sons – Todd and Jeff, and their families, who now operate the ranch – are taking conservation and restoration to a new level. Their 19,000 acre range is filled with native trees, shrubs and grasses.
“The ranch looks better than it has in my life time,” Clarence says. “Maybe in another 50 years, the land will look like it did before it was settled.”