Battle lines in the war against the mountain pine beetle are shifting north in the Black Hills, as hordes of the burrowing bugs emerge from dying pine trees to infect whole new sections of forest.
The spread of the beetle, which has already been estimated by U.S. Forest Service specialists to have damaged 400,000 acres of the 1.2-million acre Black Hills National Forest over the past 14 years, is painfully clear this summer in new swaths of the forest marked by the red-brown color of dead trees.
And those marred sections of forest will expand next year, as the trees killed by the beetles flying now begin to turn rusty brown.
“It’s spreading north real quick,” said timber industry spokesman Carson Engelskirger, forest program manager for the Black Hills Forest Resource Association in Rapid City. “Now all the way from Custer north into the northern Black Hills you’ll find forest with bugs in it.”
The Custer Peak area near Deadwood is one of the more dramatic examples of the northern explosion of the bugs. It showed up in alarming ways during a recent aerial survey of the Black Hills by the forest resource group.
“This year it blew up. I mean it’s huge,” Engelskirger said. “We’re trying to figure out what our strategy is moving forward. It’s all hands on deck right now.”
One of those hands is an important one. Gov. Dennis Daugaard will have a news conference near Hill City today to announce a major new state initiative in the battle against the beetle. Daugaard will be joined by officials for the Black Hills National Forest, state foresters, legislators and local government leaders.
The Daugaard plan is expected to involve more cooperation between federal, state and local governments as well as private landowners confronting beetle damage on their own property.
Whatever the details of the cooperative plan to be announced by the governor, it will have to include money. Tree thinning operations to make dense stands of forest less vulnerable to beetle infestation and “sanitation” work to clean up and remove already infected trees take cash -- and plenty of it -- to be effective.
But they also might require more flexibility or assistance from federal officials who manage the forest, which is something Engelskirger and his organization have been pushing.
Although the process for approving timber sales and treatment programs has improved it still is hampered by regulations, such as those that set parts of the forest aside for special management for certain plant or wildlife species, Engelskirger said. The intent of the special areas might be good, but the practical effect of setting areas off limits to tree thinning impedes the fight to slow the spread of beetles, he said.
“Every project has areas thrown out, for plants, scenic objectives, sensitive animals -- there’s a whole list of stuff that leads to certain areas can be declared outside the project work. And that’s where the bugs go,” Engelskirger said. “The bugs don’t care about scenic views or sensitive habitats. They do what they do, which is infest overstocked forest where trees are too dense.”
Craig Bobzien, supervisor of the Black Hills National Forest, understands that concern. But he also maintains that part of the beetle management program must allow for efforts to preserve key areas of forest for wildlife and ecological benefits.
It’s unlikely that the beetle will wipe out all those areas, and preserving them in a manner that maintains their value is important, Bobzien said.
“In some of those areas where beetles are threatening, we still need to maintain some forest structure,” he said. “I’m responsible for making sure we’ve got the habitats for sensitive species, so we don’t trend them toward listing as federally endangered species.”
Others criticize the Forest Service for what they believe are exaggerated estimates of damage to the forest by beetles. Brian Brademeyer, a spokesman for the environmental group Friends of the Norbeck, argues that the actual acres of beetle damage are probably no more than a quarter of the 400,000-plus-acre estimate used by the Forest Service.
Brademeyer and some other environmentalists have argued that the Forest Service and timber industry use flawed techniques to estimate beetle damage and exaggerate the problem in order to justify expanding logging and allow short cuts on project reviews. The intensive beetle war is an overreaction to a bug that is part of Black Hills history and ecology, they say.
“Beetle impacts are being intentionally exaggerated,” Brademeyer said.
Bobzien said there is no exaggeration of affected acres, intentional or otherwise. The process for counting isn’t exact, but a combination of GPS computer mapping and high-resolution aerial photography allows the beetle devastation to be effectively estimated, he said.
Going into this year, the total estimate was 400,000 acres, which included estimates of new beetle damage of 22,000 acres in 2009 and 44,000 acres in 2010. This year’s crop of beetles is flying now from dead trees to infest healthy ones, so the estimate for this year isn’t yet done.
But early indications are not good. Those indicators include reports from personnel in helicopters involved in fighting forest fires. They indicate more new acres than last year, said Frank Carroll, a public affairs officer for the Black Hills National Forest.
“We believe we will have at least 40,000 (new) acres affected this year and probably more,” Carroll said. “It’s astonishing. The bugs are moving in all directions, but very strongly to the north.”
Pine trees infested by the bugs can only be identified by close-up inspection. They won’t show up as dead trees from a distance or in aerial photography for months.
“This year the infested trees look fine,” Carroll said. “They’re dead but they don’t know they’re dead.”
Contact Kevin Woster at 394-8413 or firstname.lastname@example.org.