CUSTER | Halfway up the slope just west of Jim Hughes' ranch house, the green pine forest is mottled with red splotches of trees killed by mountain pine beetles.
It's a familiar sight across the Black Hills. And in this case, it's also a fragile battle line for Hughes, a 60-year-old Custer-area rancher and former logger who is fighting bugs that fly in from adjoining national forest to infest more of his trees.
Hughes said he knows how to beat the bugs on his property and has been doing it for years. But he needs more help from the U.S. Forest Service to stem the flight in from federal land. And it seems unlikely he will get what he says he needs.
"I know it's asking a lot to seek funding from the Forest Service," Hughes said. "But I think we've shown we can be proficient in destroying pine-beetle habitat. I'd really like to see this expand."
The project Hughes hopes to expand is based on a bark-stripping machine that he modified to make more mobile. He then sought modifications in ongoing arrangements with the U.S. Forest Service that allow landowners to cut infested trees on national forest bordering their property.
The arrangements typically are limited to felling the trees, cutting them in chunks and leaving them in place, well before the beetle larvae under the bark emerge to spread each summer. The process can be up to 80 percent effective in killing the pine-beetle larvae and dramatically reducing their hatch and spread.
But debarking the tree can be close to 100 percent effective, Hughes said. And the Hell Canyon Ranger District of the Black Hills National Forest is allowing him to use the diesel-powered debarker and other machinery on national forest adjoining his land.
Rather than leave the chunked trees to rot and, Hughes worries, become fire material, the bark is stripped and chewed up into little pieces, along with the bug larvae. That means the log beneath can be shipped off the property without fear of spreading the bugs and possibly with commercial value for the Forest Service, which owns the logs.
It's more effective, leaves less mess and can actually produce a product with some value, Hughes said.
"You can see, it's really kind of a desirable product," he said while standing near a stack of debarked logs near his property line. "I'm not making any money on this. But I'm killing the pine beetle and demonstrating a new technology that hopefully will catch on and be useful."
Hughes, who has worked to thin his forest and remove infested trees for years, has in recent years received state financial assistance for the costs of removing trees from his own property. And he received help from Pennington County for the costs in removing infested trees in a 100-yard-wide strip of national forest adjoining his land.
But to go deeper into the federal land, where rusty colored patches show more infestation headed his way, would require additional Forest Service authority. And even more, it would require financial assistance to make it affordable, Hughes said.
The additional flexibility might work out. The money likely won't.
Dave Mertz, natural resource staff officer for the Black Hills National Forest in Custer, said providing financial assistance for private landowners is "probably not very feasible."
There's no Forest Service mechanism to pay private landowners, Mertz said.
"We don't even have a means for that," he said.
The best option available now might be a small timber sale directed at Hughes, Mertz said. That would allow Hughes to buy the right to take out the trees, then see if he could make money debarking and selling them himself.
There might be more flexibility on going beyond the 100-yard line into the forest, Mertz said.
"He would have to work with the district ranger, or acting district ranger," he said. "That's up to the discretion of the district ranger."
Mertz has seen the debarker work and agrees that stripping and shredding the bark is more effective at killing beetle larva than cut and chunk.
Hughes would like to take it farther into the forest, where the beetles wait. But without financial assistance, it will be difficult to afford, he said. The glut of logs caused by bug-tree removal efforts has driven down the marked price, making government assistance that much more important, he said.
Without the incentives, it might not work for Hughes and is unlikely to be used by other landowners, he said.
Meanwhile, the bug fight goes on for Hughes. He removed 1,500 trees from his property last year. This year he had a contractor crew take out 4,300.
Tree thinning on his property and on surrounding national forest has helped slow the spread of the bugs. But even thinned national forest nearby is showing signs of re-infestation.
"That's supposed to go against the science," Hughes said. "You open the forest up, that's supposed to make it hard for the bugs to come in. But you can see they're here."
Mertz said some thinned areas are being hit again by beetles. But others are doing well.
"There are a lot of thinned areas that are still looking pretty good," he said. "Overall, I'd say it's pretty effective. That doesn't mean it's 100 percent."
Jim Hughes can see that from his front yard. And as bad as it looks to the west, it's even more imposing to the north, Hughes said.
"This is going to keep going," he said. "And I'm right in the path of it."
"You look up there and you can really see where the potential is for them to fly in," Hughes said, staring off at the