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Delegates work to thwart pine beetle

An aerial photo taken in September shows the devastation wrought by pine beetles in the vicinity of South Dakota's Harney Peak, which is the rocky peak at center. The discolored trees have been killed by the insects. (Beth Steinhauer/Black Hills National Forest Photo)

U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin has introduced legislation that she hopes will stem the tide of the pine beetle while creating jobs in South Dakota.

That brings to three the number of South Dakota's congressional delegates pushing for some sort of relief from the pest that is ruining thousands of acres of prime forest land in the state's Black Hills.

Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., along with congressmen from Oregon and Washington, introduced a package of legislation she says "represents an innovative way forward in forest and energy policy."

Called the Healthy Forest Restoration Amendments Act, the legislation would strengthen the ability of forest managers to nurse disease-plagued forests back to health while also creating avenues for government and private institutions -- such as schools and colleges -- to use biomass as an energy source.

"These policies will not only result in healthier forests and reduce wildfire risks, but complement efforts from the 2007 energy bill and jumpstart our nation's efforts to become truly energy independent," Herseth Sandlin said Thursday.

Earlier this week, it was announced that the U.S. Forest Service received additional funding to help combat damage caused by the beetle.

That news came after Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., and Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., were among seven senators who urged Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to release additional funds for the fight against the insect. In their letter, they told Vilsack the beetle has created "a national emergency" and said the epidemic is predicted to continue for several years.

According to statistics from Johnson's office, pine beetles have affected 370,000 acres in the 1.5 million-acre Black Hills National Forest. The bugs kill the trees, and thus create fire hazards, affect stream flows and ruin the overall beauty of the forest.

Specifically, the Herseth Sandlin legislation would:

• Create incentives to increase use of the Renewable Biomass Act of 2009 and establish a program through the United States Department of Agriculture to provide interest-free loans. Those loans then would be used for converting existing equipment or installing new equipment to use renewable, woody biomass for energy generation, heating or cooling in certain public and private buildings.

The loans would be provided to institutions of higher education, public and private elementary and secondary schools and hospitals, as well as government and tribal buildings.

• Amend the Healthy Forest Rehabilitation Act to make sure forest managers have the tools they need to proactively address the threat of wildfire, disease and infestation to forests and the communities that depend on them. Herseth Sandlin said the bill would improve efficiency by allowing land managers to conduct necessary preventative actions such as weed management, tree planting, road work and other projects related to fuel-reduction processes.

In July, Thune outlined a similar plan, saying that such ideas can "preserve the health of our forest with an emphasis on fire prevention, while at the same time, expanding the region's potential for renewable energy development." Thune, a native of the western South Dakota town of Murdo, serves on the Senate Forestry Committee.

Herseth Sandlin on Thursday said that if her legislation moves forward, it will allow for more combustible material to be removed from the forest, which, in turn, would increase the potential for more contracts for timber sales.

"All of that, then, results in jobs for those who will go in and remove and do the thinning projects," she said. "That results in saving or creating jobs in rural or western South Dakota. ... In South Dakota, even though we often struggle to get predictability and certainty in terms of the annual amount of timber we can get out of the forest, other communities throughout the west are in much more dire circumstances. They have seen their timber industries almost disappear."