PIEDMONT, SD – In the mid 1870’s, there were two ways to enter the Black Hills of South Dakota, on foot or on the back of a horse. By 1887, the effort to construct the first railroad into a piece of Lakota treaty land that settlers called the Piedmont Valley brought John Murray to the area. In July of that year, Murray purchased a large acreage, including the wooded slopes above the red dirt valley floor, for $675.
One hundred and thirty-four years later, the American Tree Farm System (ATFS), a program administered by the American Forest Foundation, has named Murray’s descendants as the 2021 National Outstanding Tree Farmers of the Year.
Mary LaHood and Bob Burns, who manage the LaHood-Burns Family Forest with their children, were selected by an independent selection committee made up of ATFS partners, landowners, and past Regional and Outstanding Tree Farmer of the year finalists. The LaHood-Burns family was selected from among more than 70,000 certified Tree Farmers nationwide, and are recognized for their decades of dedicated, proactive stewardship of their 320 acres of forestland.
“I am privileged to know Mary and Bob personally and can attest to their commitment to building community among forest landowners, in addition to caring for their land in a way that would make past and future generations proud,” said Angela Wells, Director of the Amerian Tree Farm System (ATFS). “Their efforts to empower their neighbors to protect themselves and their forests from wildfire, while tirelessly advocating for the rights of South Dakota’s family forest owners, are an embodiment of what makes the ATFS network so special.”
ATFS is an internationally-recognized education and certification program designed specifically for family forest owners. The program provides enrolled landowners with tools, community and support to keep their forests healthy. Enrolled Tree Farmers, in return, care for their land, meeting rigorous Standards of Sustainability. Collectively, there are nearly 19 million forested acres within the ATFS program nationwide.
To be considered for the Outstanding Tree Farmer of the Year award, individuals must exhibit exceptional forest stewardship to protect and improve our forest resources, and must promote forest stewardship within their communities.
The LaHood-Burns Family Forest has been a certified Tree Farm for more than 20 years. It is comprised of ponderosa pine, along with a mix of other conifers and deciduous trees. Their property is one of more than 100 on about 20,000 acres of privately owned forest land in the Black Hills. These family-owned forests make up an important source of timber for the local economy and provide vital areas of open space in the state for wildlife, water protection and recreation.
Given the importance of all the properties in the Black Hills, the LaHood-Burns family works cooperatively with adjacent landowners, both the U.S. Forest Service and private owners; in some cases, co-managing for the benefit of the entire landscape.
Burns and LaHood are being recognized for decades of conscientious, pro-active, hands-on stewardship of the land and for their dedication and advocacy for the family forest landowners.
LaHoods-Burns Family Forest focuses on multiple uses that protect the timber stands, reduce wildfire danger, promote water quality, reduce the threat of Mountain Pine Beetles, reduce noxious weeds, and enhance wildlife habitats while improving recreation such as camping and hiking. They have also worked closely with the US Forest Service on their properties bordering their farm and helped in the reduction of off-highway vehicles’ impact on pristine riparian areas.
But its not only their efforts on their own forest. “They are doing a lot of impressive outreach and advocacy by giving back to their community to provide values that tree farmers hold dear,” said Dr. Salem Saloom (2010 ATFS TFOY) who visited the property during the selection process. “This really made them stand out.
The family takes a diverse approach to management, focusing on protecting the timber stands from wildfire danger, promoting water quality, reduce the threat of Mountain Pine beetles, reducing invasive weeds, as well as improving wildlife habitat and recreation opportunities such as camping and hiking for the greater community.
“I can’t think of more deserving Tree Farmers,” says Bill Coburn, chairman of the South Dakota Family Forests Association. “When I called them, they were up on their farm working. That says a lot about their incredible dedication.”
Burns is currently the Vice-Chair of the South Dakota Family Forests Association and chair of its Advocacy Committee. He has served as Past President of the Black Hills National Forest Advisory Board, the Meade School Board and the Norbeck Society (a local environmental conservation group.) LaHood is the Executive Director and Treasurer of the South Dakota Family Forests Association.
Across the U.S., family forest owners like the LaHood-Burns family care for the largest portion, 39 percent, of America’s forests. Their efforts are crucial to addressing the biggest environmental threats, such as wildfire risk and climate change, and maintaining the country’s natural resources, including clean water, wildlife habitat, carbon storage and a wood supply for the products Americans use every day.
The LaHood-Burns family was selected from among this year’s Regional Outstanding Tree Farmers of the Years, which also included from the South: Leighton “Foots” and Allen Parnell of Stanton, Alabama; from the Northeast: Don and Patricia Newell of Thorndike, Maine; and from the North Central: Clifton and Barbara Taylor of Forkland, Kentucky.