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BONES: Pine beetle a true hazard in South Dakota

The governor has announced a new initiative designed to prevent the mountain pine beetle from destroying the forest and its communities by increasing awareness of the problem; engaging homeowners and businesses; coordinating with state, county and federal partners; and increasing those resources used to deal with the problem.

SDDA is right in the thick of the Black Hills Forest Initiative. We have been working with the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks for years to protect Custer State Park from the mountain pine beetle. Because of our efforts to thin the stand and cut down beetle-infested trees, the park remains largely unaffected. Interestingly, the adjacent Black Elk Wilderness Area, managed by the federal government, has sustained devastating losses because of the beetle.

Over the last year, our Resource Conservation and Forestry Division has been marking trees on private property, when requested by the landowners, to help them curb the outbreak. We also offered a cost-share program to those landowners who wanted help felling and treating those infested trees. We continue to work with landowners and help them to prevent destruction on their property.

The Wildland Fire Suppression division of SDDA has the unenviable task of fighting the fires that break out on state and private land within the Black Hills Forest Fire Protection District and other forested areas across the state. They also help fight fires and respond to natural disasters in other states, when called upon.

The mountain pine beetle has made their job more difficult and dangerous.

We were reminded how difficult and dangerous this job is when we lost one of our own employees, Trampus Haskvitz, during the Coal Canyon Fire this summer. By all accounts, he was a hero and a leader among his peers. Many others like Trampus will continue to fight the wildfires and protect our natural resources.

And we will continue our fight against the mountain pine beetle.

One of the most overlooked aspects of South Dakota agriculture is our state's forest industry.

South Dakota has 1.7 million acres and 511 million trees in forestland. 3,548 people are directly employed in the forest industry and hundreds or thousands more depend on the beauty and attraction of the forest for their livelihoods.

Our Black Hills forest is now facing a serious threat from a tiny insect called the mountain pine beetle. This beetle is destroying our forest. In fact, over one-third of the Black Hills National Forest has been infested by the beetle and there is no sign that the outbreak will let up anytime soon.

Walt Bones of Parker is the South Dakota secretary of agriculture.