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Natural North Dakota

Burning Coal Vein and Columnar Junipers

It has been a while since I last visited the Burning Coal Vein and columnar junipers, but I recently had the opportunity to get reacquainted with them. They didn’t disappoint!

Bands of lignite coal occasionally catch fire and burn for a time, but this burning coal vein, located some 15 miles north and west of Amidon, or around 30 miles south of Medora on East River Road is a landmark. Ignited by lightning or perhaps a prairie fire, this burning coal vein, several feet below the ground, was first observed by white settlers to the area back in the 1880’s. It continued to burn and smolder until the late 1970’s or perhaps early 1980’s. Even in the summer visitors could feel the heat emanating from cracks in the ground below which the fire burned.

And of course, there were the columnar junipers growing nearby. Rocky Mountain red cedar (Juniperus scopulorum), often just called juniper, generally has a rounded bushy form. But these had a columnar growth form. It was thought that gasses released from the burning coal, particularly ethylene was responsible for this interesting growth form. However, a study published in the Southwestern Naturalist in 1982 concluded the columnar growth form was not entirely environmentally induced. However, since the fires went out, the juniper appear to have resumed their normal growth form.

Downhill from the old burning coal vein and columnar junipers is the Burning Coal Vein Campground. The burning coal vein and columnar junipers as well as the campground are on U.S. Forest Service Land. The campground here is modest, but contains 10 or so camp sites, each with a picnic table, fire ring, and parking spot. The campground also has a handicap accessible toilet and potable water from a well with a hand pump. A modest camping fee of $8 per night is charged, on the honor system.

Every North Dakotan should visit the burning coal vein and columnar junipers at some time. And if you have been there before, there it is still worth seeing again. Plus, the Maah Daah Hey Trail is nearby. So are a few thousand acres of ponderosa pine, the northeast most natural stand on the continent. So make a point to get acquainted or re-acquainted with this piece of Natural North Dakota in the near future. There is much so see, do, and learn here.

~Chuck Lura

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