From the air, the green fabric of the Black Hills National Forest landscape is stained with red spots and gray streaks. The less verdant areas are the toll of several years of mountain pine beetle infestation.

And yet, despite the loss of thousands of trees, a flight above the region on Thursday revealed there is hope in the state's ongoing beetle battle.

More than a third of the Black Hills National Forest, roughly 430,000 acres, has been infested by beetles. The state has spent $8 million since 2011 to fight the bugs, and it appears all that money is starting to pay dividends in slowing their spread. 

Ben Wudtke, forest programs manager for the Black Hills Forest Resource Association, said he is "cautiously optimistic" the fight is helping. The association is a non-profit group that advocates for timber and forestry professionals who would take a big financial hit if pine beetles are left unchecked.

One major sign the pine beetle spread is slowing can be found in Custer State Park. There, the number of pine beetle-infested trees was reduced from 100,000 in 2012 to 30,000 last year. "Don't get me wrong, though, we still have a long way to go," Wudtke said.

The association is a strong advocate for the use of timber sales to thin beetle-prone areas of trees as a way to slow the spread of the bug and "beetle-proof" it for the future.

"You can see it from the air," Wudtke said. "Bugs don't go in straight lines, but in areas that have been thinned, there is a clear delineation from the dead bug trees and the living forest."

On surveillance flights over the Hills on Thursday, state Sen. Alan Solano, R-Rapid City, and state Rep. Dan Dryden, R-Rapid City, rode along to assess the pine beetle damage. Solano agreed with Wudtke's assessment of that timber sales and thinning are slowing the spread of the bug.

"In my mind it's clear," Solano said. "You can see where the thinning took place and in those places there was a significantly fewer number of dead or dying trees."

The flight path Thursday morning left Eagle Aviation in Spearfish and headed south around the east side of Mount Rushmore National Monument. Near the monument and in the Black Elk Wilderness around Harney Peak, complete swaths of forest are dead and gray. Wudtke says those gray trees were hit two or more years ago and are completely dead.

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Within the forest, near Deerfield Lake, small islands of red and brown trees dot a sea of green. Those trees are ones that were infected within the last year by the beetles and are dying. "We have lost the battle in some places," Wudtke said.

It is too late for both the gray and red trees to be saved. Wudtke hopes trees can grow in those areas in 20 to 30 years, but acknowledged it may be longer than that.

However, places were red trees are prevalent are considered the front lines of the fight. Those are spots where crews are working on cutting-and-chunking and other thinning techniques to stop the spread. 

Both Solano and Dryden said being able to see the devastation from the air gives a better prospective of how destructive the beetles have been.  "It helps establish just how severe of an issue it is," Dryden said. "From the ground you just can't get a scope of the devastation." 

Solano and Dryden said they will share their findings with other lawmakers, and said they will try to find more state and federal funding to prevent the spread.

"More funding is always welcome," Wudtke said. "It would go to doing constructive forest management against the beetles."

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Managing editor

Chris Huber is the managing editor at the Rapid City Journal.