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Rapid City crews work to remove trees infested with pine beetles

RAPID CITY -- It's tough duty, removing ponderosa pine trees from the steep slopes leading up to Skyline Drive.

But these days it's essential duty, too.

City crews are working -- as weather permits -- to remove trees infested by mountain pine beetles, a tiny pest with a big collective appetite that has damaged trees on hundreds of thousands of acres of the Black Hills National Forest and are not attacking woods in Custer State Park.

The bugs were identified in a scattering of trees on private land within the city limits last year, mostly in higher elevations.

Now, the rice-sized beetles are gnawing their way toward the heart of Rapid City, and in some cases working their way down off the ridges to lower areas.

The number of trees lost so far isn't staggering, but the losses could be if the city is slow to respond. That's why city parks maintenance worker Mark Anderson and others in a tree-removal crew were sliding around in the precipitous forest of the Skyline Wilderness Area recently.

They took the battle against the bug into familiar Rapid City forests, close to where we live.

"It's steep in there," Anderson said, after a work shift spent cutting and hauling pines out of the forest on the east slope leading up to Skyline Drive. "It's twice as steep as it was over on Cowboy Hill."

Both areas of wooded, craggy high ground on the north and south sides of where Main Street and Omaha run through the gap are popular public recreation spots for hiking, mountain biking and simply soaking in the solitude of the forest. They also define the center of the city in a picturesque glimpse of the grander Black Hills landscapes to come.

Preventing widespread beetle damage in those now-lightly-infested areas is a priority that begins with surveys and bug-tree removal.

"We identified 20 trees in that Skyline Wilderness, Dinosaur Park area," said Gary Garner, an urban forester for the city. "And we just completed a survey of M-Hill, Hanson-Larsen Trust property and Lien Family Park. We identified an additional 20 trees on that property."

That's not many, for now. But those trees are infested with burrowed-in bugs that, left alone, would produce another generation of bugs to emerge and fly off to attack new trees next year.

Forty becomes 400, then 4,000, in a relatively quick turnaround, if not contained. Asked if officials have identified the problem quick enough to remove the trees and prevent a large kill of pines, Garner was hopeful.

"I think we are on public land," he said. "I'm hoping individual property owners, especially small landowners that live in neighborhoods with lots of small landowners, are watching for the problem."

Kristina Barker/Rapid City Journal

A view of Custer Peak as seen on Aug. 2. Areas infected by the pine beetle appear as light yellow. Healthy trees appear dark green. Trees infected in the last few years appear rust colored and grey.