Part of the Discovery Center's treehouse exhibit is nearly ready for the Friday opening.

Welcome to “Discovery Digest,” a column with the Capital Journal that looks at the stories and ideas floating around the South Dakota Discovery Center community.

Up above, high in the trees, birds are building their summer homes, squirrels are frolicking, and buds are emerging — not to mention the swings that are being set up. It is no wonder that Arbor Day comes at the end of the month, this Friday, April 29, 2022.

In central South Dakota, the landscape is dominated by rolling hills and grass. It may seem odd to mark Arbor Day. Our semi-arid climate makes it difficult for groves of trees to grow, but, in fact, Arbor Day was started just south of us, in Nebraska, which was designated as “The Tree Planters State” as far back as the late 1800s. A complicated conservation detail as Chris Helzer writes about in his blog “The Prairie Ecologist.”

Helzer, the Nature Conservancy Director of Science for Nebraska, points out that the planting of trees can affect native plants and wildlife in the Great Plains, where South Dakota, and Nebraska, are located.

This is not to say that trees are nonexistent here or that they do not play an important part in our ecosystem. Outside of towns, cottonwoods and junipers are often found growing naturally along waterways and where rainwater gathers. One just needs to be cautious about introducing invasive species and decide if the location of one tree, or many, will adversely affect the prairie ecosystem around it. This is why our Arbor Day celebrations often revolve around our cities and towns.

Within our communities, trees help make our homes habitable by providing protection from the wind and sun. They make our parks beautiful and also help decrease water erosion and are used by community wildlife. Through a little effort and research, we can strike a balance between prairie conservation and creating more livable spaces.

This year, the Pierre Arbor Board, chaired by Art Smith of East Pierre Garden Center, with the Izaak Walton League is giving bare root trees to area second graders. Focusing on a different native species every year, students are given information about the tree and care instructions. “Bare root” trees are trees that have been dug and stored with no dirt around their roots, which makes them easier to plant. This year students will be receiving Northern Catalpa roots.

“We often hear from people that they want to take their tree with them when they move,” Smith said. “They will say that their child was a second-grader so many years ago and ask what it will take to take the tree with them.”

Such is the power of trees, we use them to mark time and our fondness for a particular tree can become central to childhood moments.

To commemorate the community’s dedication to our leafy friends, this year, Pierre Mayor Steve Harding will be giving a proclamation as a new 8-foot Cottonwood, donated by the Hughes County Conservation District, is installed in Mayor’s Grove as a part of the Tree City USA program. As the Tree City USA organization states, “the benefits trees bring to urban environments are endless,” leading to cooler temperatures, cleaner air, higher property values, and, most importantly, healthier residents.

In addition to community efforts, the South Dakota Discovery Center is celebrating with the opening of a brand new Treehouse Exhibit! Opening this Arbor Day, the exhibit will be previewed by the SDDC Little STEAMers preschool during their morning class before it officially opens. These little explorers have been watching the space transform for months as staff built walkways and applied bright colored paint to engage young imaginations.

In the afternoon, Stanley County GOLD Program children will unveil the exhibit to the public. In partnership with the new exhibit, the Hughes County Conservation District is providing 200 bare root trees and information about their care to the Center to give away. The GOLD Program kids will plant some of these trees in Fort Pierre and the rest will be available for visitors to the exhibit hall on April 29.

“When Rhea reached out to us about celebrating the Treehouse exhibit, we jumped at it,” Doug Boes, HCCD Manager, said. “Our board is full of wonderful people and their leadership helps us reach out to and support our community. In 2021, the HCCD installed 300 acres of new tree plantings.”

Through the efforts of the HCCD, landowners are connected with conservation resources, trees for shelterbelts and erosion protection around farmland, and native grasses and other plants that help pollinators and wildlife.

SDDC Exhibit hours on Friday, April 29, are extended one hour, from 1-6 p.m., and everyone is welcome to play and learn about trees and the prairie ecosystem. A social from 5-6 p.m., sponsored by Treehouse Exhibit supporter Rotary Club of Pierre-Fort Pierre, will feature treats and an exhibit dedication with a plaque. The social and dedication is free and open to the public.

The SDDC is dedicated to empowering all Peoples of the Great Plains through hands-on experiences that inspire scientific thinking. Follow the SDDC on Facebook for day-to-day updates and highlights, and learn more about its mission, programs for all ages, professional development courses, and popular exhibit hall by visiting

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