House panel endorses new forest strategy for Black Hills

PIERRE -- The state House of Representatives is scheduled to talk next week about a different approach on forests that is taking root for the Black Hills.

PIERRE - The state House of Representatives is scheduled to talk next week about a different approach on forests that is taking root for the Black Hills.

A resolution that calls for a "resilient forest strategy" is on the House calendar for Tuesday afternoon.

Rep. David Johnson, R-Rapid City, is prime sponsor of HCR 1003. Johnson, who's 57, said he's worked about 40 years as an arborist in western South Dakota.

He helped put together an information session for state lawmakers Tuesday afternoon at the Capitol.

Then he led off testimony Thursday about the plan to the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.


The panel unanimously endorsed it.

The thrust of the new approach is to change management of timber ground and reduce the opportunities for mountain pine beetles to make their next invasion.

Johnson told lawmakers Thursday that mountain pine beetles turned about 400,000 of the 1.2 million acres of Black Hills forest lands from "evergreen" to "ever-brown."

He said the beetles would be back in about 10 years, give or take.

"When that time comes," he warned, "it's going to be substantially more severe."

Johnson distributed a one-page sheet filled front and back with names for more than 65 organizations and offices that worked together on the new strategy.

"These are individuals and organizations that don't always see eye to eye," he said

Another who testified Thursday was Gregory Josten, state forester for the South Dakota Department of Agriculture.


Josten said the mountain pine beetle is native to the Black Hills. He said they would periodically return in big numbers but more diversity of forest structure could potentially reduce the damage.

"Even though disturbances will occur, the forest will recover more quickly from those disturbances," Johnson said.

He said the resilient strategy's goals are to protect people and property, assist the forest industry and promote science.

Paul Schipke, a private landowner near Deadwood, said he was happy to see Johnson's resolution.

Schipke said he's still spraying weeds from the Grizzly Gulch fire that swept through his property 15 years ago.

The risk to public safety is rapidly increasing because the rural population is growing so much in the Black Hills, he said. The 15 people in his immediate area who were affected by the Grizzly Gulch blaze now number 50 and they'll be 100 within the coming decade or so, he said.

Some 25 to 30 percent of land in the Black Hills is privately owned, Schipke said, and those people rely on the state government for technical support. "That expertise is rare and hard to come by," he said.

Other witnesses who spoke in favor of the plan were a Sierra Club representative state Game, Fish & Parks Secretary Kelly Hepler, who said his father worked 33 years at a local sawmill; and Sen. Bob Ewing, R-Spearfish, making his first appearance before the House committee.


Ewing was in the heart of the battle while a Lawrence County Commission member for 12 years. He's the lead Senate sponsor for the resolution.

"We somewhat had our hands tied through the federal rules that were in place," Ewing said.

No one testified against the resolution.

Schipke, the private landowner, said he's planted some 23,000 trees since the Grizzly Gulch fire sterilized about two-thirds of his property. He said it would take "hundreds of years, probably" for a forest to naturally re-establish itself.

But he also has other areas where standing trees need to be thinned lest they become a haven for bugs.

Schipke said the number of foresters available to help private landowners is limited. "So we rely very heavy on the state of South Dakota to provide the technical management," he said.

Rep. Johnson returned to the witness table. "We're not asking for any money. We're just asking for promotion, for publicity," he said.

Timber industry, tourism industry and private property owners all would "lose a lot of money" if the strategy isn't widely accepted, according to Johnson.


He said the non-meandered waters controversy of eastern South Dakota was similar to what the mountain pine beetle problem is in the Black Hills.

"I think it's a very direct equivalency," Johnson said.

Josten, the state forester, said scientists don't yet understand what causes the beetles to surge into an epidemic and then eventually recede.

High density habitat helps sustain epidemics, he said.

"For whatever reasons, past management allowed the trees to become as dense as they were," he said. Breaking up those areas would help, he said.

Ponderosa pines predominate the Black Hills terrain. He said 100 to 150 or 200 trees per acre is a healthy number.

There are markets for products made from trees with trunks at least five inches across, and boards can be made from trees with trunks at least eight inches wide, Josten said.

The search continues for other markets, such as processing slash piles.


Rep. Larry Rhoden, R-Union Center, asked the committee to recommend the full House support the resolution.

He described the Black Hills as "the crown jewel of South Dakota" said mountain pine beetles "devastated" parts of the region.

"This is very appropriate to come before committee," Rhoden said. "This needs to be highlighted. We need to know what's going on."

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