Noem hears pine beetle fears during hearingHILL CITY — The Black Hills is in the grip of the worst mountain pine beetle epidemic in recorded history, and those who pay close attention to the dead, red pine trees fear that a catastrophic wildfire will bring a tragic end to more than the beetles.
By: Denise Ross, The Daily Republic
HILL CITY — The Black Hills is in the grip of the worst mountain pine beetle epidemic in recorded history, and those who pay close attention to the dead, red pine trees fear that a catastrophic wildfire will bring a tragic end to more than the beetles.
Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., heard the fears during a U.S. House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing held at a campground near Hill City on Sunday afternoon.
“I’m horrified at the prospect of a wildfire exploding,” said Todd George, an owner of the Rafter J Bar Ranch campground.
His family’s business and much of the Black Hills could be consumed, he said, “in the blink of an eye” given the wide swaths of dead, dry trees. He has halted expansion plans and is working with government agencies on mitigation and evacuation planning in the event of a large fire, he said.
Noem said she climbed Harney Peak on Father’s Day and was stunned at the sight.
“I was overwhelmed,” she said.
The number of acres consumed by beetle-killed Ponderosa pine trees are doubling year over year, and Black Hills National Forest Supervisor Craig Bobzien said it would take his agency five years to halt the progress if it could be freed from federal red tape.
Under the National Environmental Protection Act, it typically takes two years to get a management plan approved by the U.S. Forest Service — if the plan is approved at all — and by then two generations of beetles have flown from infected trees and killed even more.
Each spring, the bugs fly up to 300 feet and burrow into healthy trees, which quickly die and turn red. In the 13,000-acre Black Elk Wilderness Area near Mount Rushmore, virtually all the trees have been killed by beetles, witnesses told Noem and U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah.
Bobzien called the wilderness area “a vast area of dead trees.”
State Forester Ray Sowers testified that the Black Hills has endured the current beetle outbreak for 12 to 14 years with no end in sight. He and others pleaded for better management by the U.S. Forest Service, where he said 95 percent of the problem exists.
“This continues to cause problems on state and private land,” he said.
South Dakota Agriculture Secretary Walt Bones read a letter from Gov. Dennis Daugaard that stated, “The Forest Service must do a better job of managing pine beetle attacks on the borders of federal lands.”
The letter drew applause from the crowd of several hundred who crammed into a picnic shelter at the Rafter Bar J campground on a hot July afternoon.
The state and private landowners have undertaken more aggressive management, removing beetle-infected trees as soon as they can be identified. In addition, nonfederal forests are logged more intensely, leaving less dense stands of trees for what many argue are healthier forests.
The state has been using a combination of tactics in Custer State Park, where it has lost four trees to pine beetles in 10 years, Sowers said.
In addition to removing beetle trees and logging, the state creates buffer strips around infested areas to prevent beetles from flying to healthy trees in the spring. They also use pheromones to attract the bugs to “sacrificial trees” and concentrate an infestation in a small area.
And they use pheromones to repel the bugs from healthy stands of trees. Finally, they cut infested trees into two-foot chunks, which dries the trees out more quickly, Sowers said.
The U.S. Forest Service is just beginning some of these practices, and Sowers said he believes it will help.
Local landowner Jim Scherrer praised local Forest Service personnel, saying they have helped him with projects on his property when federal regulations allow it.
“When given the opportunity, these guys want to get it done,” said Scherrer, who serves on the Black Hills National Forest Advisory Board.
But, he said, the frustration among private landowners is mounting.
“Every day I hear, ‘Please use all the tools necessary. Create new tools. Figure it out.’”
Black Hills National Forest Supervisor Bobzien said a pilot project for more logging and a streamlined forest management process is on track for 330,000 acres of the Black Hills National Forest at high risk for beetle infestation.
However, the review of that project will take about 18 months. Bobzien said he hopes to have the pilot project underway by the 2012 bug season.
Photo by Dave Larson for The Republic
U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., tells a crowd near Hill City Sunday that the federal government needs to more aggressively manage the Black Hills National Forest to keep the current mountain pine beetle outbreak from spreading. U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, right, joined Noem for the meeting.