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NOEM: Battling the beetle

As the temperature ticks upward and the last day of school inches closer, many are starting to think about their summer vacation plans. While schedules only seem to get busier, our family still tries to make it out to the Black Hills many times t...

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As the temperature ticks upward and the last day of school inches closer, many are starting to think about their summer vacation plans. While schedules only seem to get busier, our family still tries to make it out to the Black Hills many times throughout the year, although we especially love those summer months and their longer days.  There’s just nothing like the hiking, the serenity, and – of course – the faces that a person finds in the Hills.  Over the years, however, we’ve seen the landscape change.  Year after year, our family pictures show a slowly dying forest.

For more than two decades, the Mountain Pine Beetle has devastated much of the Black Hills and turned portions of this once-heathy forest into a tinder box. In total, more than 30 percent of the 1.2 million acre forest was impacted to some degree by the beetles, increasing the area’s potential for a dangerous wildfire and jeopardizing the tourism and forestry industries that our state relies on.

This April, however, the U.S. Forest Service announced the beetle had finally been beat.  While work remains to repair the damage and make the forest more resilient against future outbreaks, getting to this point is a long-sought success.

The epidemic had been ongoing for around a decade before I was elected to represent South Dakota.  When I brought U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell to view the damage firsthand in November 2013, it was clear we had the tools to combat the pine beetle, but we weren’t able to apply them on a large enough scale.  Reforms on the federal level were needed.

Months later, we saw those reforms become law through provisions I helped write and fought to include in the 2014 Farm Bill.  As a result, we were able to cut through environmental red tape, get boots on the ground faster, and allow the Forest Service to work on the scale this epidemic required.  Around one million acres of the Black Hills National Forest benefited from the provisions.

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Additionally, I fought to make sure we prioritized the funding needed to help beat the beetle. The financial support promised a trifecta of benefits. Of course, it helped us care for one of South Dakota’s most beautiful resources, but it also served to protect our state’s thriving tourism industry. According to a recent report from South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, outdoor recreationists support more than 18,000 jobs, add $85.5 million to state and local bank accounts through taxes, and offer $534 million worth of income to South Dakotans. The Black Hills is a critical piece of that industry. Maybe most importantly, however, I fought for support as a matter of public safety. Simply put, an unhealthy forest carries the potential for a deadly wildfire.

We are fortunate to have so many dedicated foresters working in the Black Hills throughout this time and I’m proud to have been able to score some victories in support of their efforts.  Nonetheless, while the Forest Service has ruled the epidemic over, years of damage left behind thousands of acres of dead and dying trees.  There’s work to do, but I’m committed to turning the Black Hills green again.

I count the Hills among South Dakota’s many treasures, which means keeping the forest healthy is a top priority. So, check out the progress this summer.  Plan a visit – maybe we’ll see you out there.

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