The Missouri River’s pioneer cottonwood forests are in trouble. Big trouble.
Before two huge reservoirs were filled — one behind Garrison Dam in 1953 and the second behind Oahe Dam in 1958 — hardwood forests along the river bottom were dominated by cottonwoods.
When the reservoirs were filled, those forests were flooded and destroyed.
Going back to when humans first inhabited the plains, trees have been held in reverence, holding an almost sacred place with people — in part because there are so few of them. A scant 1.5 percent of the land area of North Dakota is forested.
Tom Claeys, forestry and fire management team leader for the North Dakota Forest Service, said there are a number of factors leading to the decline of the cottonwoods.
The change of the natural flow of the Missouri River following dam construction, development along the river and land-use changes all have led to the decline of the cottonwoods.
Claeys said the cottonwoods reproduce naturally as their seeds are spread along sandbars by seasonal fluctuations in water levels.
But that historic spring rise has been absent for the last 60 years. Claeys said the net result is that other species like smooth brome grass and Russian olive trees are now taking over the ecosystem along the river.
Unfortunately, he said, there is not much hope the cottonwoods, some of which are 250 years old in the Sanger area, will be able to make a comeback.
“This is an issue from Montana all the way downstream,” Claeys said.
The importance of cottonwoods was well chronicled by the Lewis and Clark expedition and for generations before that by American Indian cultures.
Throughout the history of the Missouri River valley, cottonwoods were used for everything from fuel and building materials to food for horses and people as well as medicine.
Members of the expedition learned from American Indians that cottonwood bark, twigs, young branches and saplings made better feed for horses than hay. People also could eat the inner bark for its nutritional value and sweetness.
The inner bark, which contains salicin, also was used as an anti-rheumatic drug, a disinfectant and an antiseptic.
Cedric Goodhouse of Fort Yates considers himself a traditionalist. His wife, Sissy, teaches the Lakota language and other classes at the high school. They feel an obligation to pass on the stories of their history and culture to the younger generation.
If you have ever snapped a cottonwood twig off at its annual growth ring, the “knuckle,” that indicates the growth of the twig between growing seasons, you've seen the inside tissue of the twig forms a five-pointed star that often turns a dark brown or reddish color.
Cedric Goodhouse said that star is a sign of life for the Lakota people.
Cottonwood stands along the river were an important meeting place for the Lakota during the first full moon of the summer, usually during June, Goodhouse said.
He said the locations for the meetings and ceremonies were chosen based on the cottonwood stands, which would provide for the people and for the horses.
“It’s a living thing,” Goodhouse said of the forests. “A good stand of cottonwoods means the Earth was healthy, ... a good place to be.”
He said there are several stories as to how the star came to be inside the cottonwood twig and other American Indian cultures across North America have their own versions.
One was the tale of two young girls, out past dark, who saw the evening star shining brightly. Goodhouse said one girl remarked how she wanted to marry the star and the second girl also said she wanted to marry the star.
The story goes that two young men fell from the stars and took the young girls back to the stars with them.
Other Native American cultures say a curious little star came to Earth and hid in a cottonwood tree to always be near the people.
A number of studies on the state of the cottonwood stands have been conducted going back to the 1970s.
In 2010, the North Dakota Forest Service published at statewide assessment of forests.
From that study, it was estimated there were about 66,000 acres of cottonwood forests, but by 2005 it had dropped 20 percent to 55,000 acres.
One of the last remaining cottonwood forests that exists along the river is from the Garrison Dam downstream about 100 miles.
Claeys said because there are no new cottonwoods growing along the sandy shores of the river, once the cottonwoods succumb to old age, they may well be lost forever.
He said that changes the entire ecosystem, including habitat for wildlife like deer and bald eagles that rely on mature cottonwoods along the river for nesting.
With forests, change doesn’t happen overnight. But for the Missouri River cottonwoods, the change is almost inevitable — and sad, Claeys said.
“Based on the degradation of the ecosystem, it’s a sign that things are out of balance,” he said.
The cottonwood, which has been the ultimate survivor by developing adaptations to survive floods, droughts, fires and other pressures, may be seeing the end of its run on the prairie, to be remembered only in stories.
“They are key to our history,” Claeys said. “We need to recognize they are part of our past ... and hopefully part of (our) future.”
Goodhouse said there are important lessons in the stories of the cottonwood for all to learn.
The red tint in stars of the cottonwood branches, he said, symbolizes life and harmony with the world around us.
He said the star remains a reminder for people to pray for the Earth we all share.