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Pine beetles take toll on Mount Rushmore, Colorado

By Jennifer Oldham

DENVER — Beetles are obliterating forests throughout Colorado and the West, draining budgets as property values decline and threatening tourism at national parks, including the home of Mount Rushmore.

Voters in Colorado communities raised taxes to protect ski resorts that bring in $3 billion annually to the economy.

The pine beetles, each the size of a rice grain, have devoured 25 percent of the woods in South Dakota’s Black Hills, where the mountain with massive carvings of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt is the linchpin of a $2 billion-a-year tourism industry.

“It’s difficult to stop the spread,” said Bill Smith, a South Dakota Agriculture Department conservation program administrator. “What we’re trying to do is slow it down.”

The beetles’ vast economic impact is emerging two decades into an epidemic fueled by climate change, overstocked forests and drought that wiped out 38,000 square miles — the size of Indiana and Rhode Island combined. As gray ghost forests dominate vistas in the Rockies, Tetons, Cascades and Sierras, officials from the U.S. Forest Service to state governments are searching for ways to counter the devastation.

“There is always the question, ‘When is the Forest Service going to take all the dead trees away?’ ” said Catherine Ross, executive director of the Winter Park-Fraser Chamber, 66 miles west of Denver. “I talk to them about the enormity of the problem. There are just so many dead trees out there.”

Infestation and disease threaten 94 national forest areas in 35 states, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said May 20 in Denver. The Forest Service is designating 45 million acres for priority restoration.

The burden doesn’t belong just to government. To protect lines and transmission facilities from fire in its mountainous service area, the Public Service Company of Colorado, a subsidiary of Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy, spent $5.5 million in 2013 to remove trees, according to its annual report.

Some pain is offset by logging jobs, including 1,200 in South Dakota’s Black Hills. Dead timber across 20.3 million acres in 12 western states is available for salvage that could mean money for landowners and governments, according to a 2013 report by researchers at North Carolina State University in Raleigh done at the Forest Service’s behest.

Democratic Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is seeking re-election, said in a letter to Vilsack that seven of the state’s 13 national forests have “experienced such massive infestation of beetles and other threats to their health they merit designation in their entirety.”

Scientists say climate change is to blame: Winters haven’t been cold enough to reduce beetle populations.

The average U.S. temperature has increased as much as 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit since 1895, with most occurring since 1970, according to the National Climate Assessment issued in May by the Obama administration.

The warming let beetles proliferate at higher elevations and latitudes, and resulted in more generations per year in some areas, according to a 2011 Forest Service report.