Have you ever hiked the Black Hills during the winter? It’s so quiet and yet surprisingly energizing. I love it.
But underneath the snow is a forest in repair. For more than two decades, the mountain pine beetle has damaged more than 30 percent of the 1.2-million-acre forest. Earlier this year, the U.S. Forest Service announced the beetle had finally been beat, albeit significant work remains to repair the damage and make the forest more resilient against future outbreaks.
In November 2013, then-U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell came to the Black Hills with me to view the damage. While he felt good about the tools we had to combat the pine beetle, we couldn’t apply them on a large enough scale.
Later, I helped write new reforms and got them included in the 2014 Farm Bill. As a result, we cut through red tape, got boots on the ground faster, and allowed the Forest Service to work on the scale the epidemic required. Around 1 million acres of the Black Hills National Forest benefited from the provisions.
In Rapid City, I met with rangers and forestry officials just before Thanksgiving. We talked about the forest’s health and how the new tools are working. It was encouraging to hear their optimism for the Black Hills’ future. But the reality remains that years of damage have left behind thousands of acres of dead and dying trees.
This November, I helped the U.S. House of Representatives pass the Resilient Federal Forests Act. Now being considered in the Senate, this legislation would pair a responsible budget fix with forest management reforms to dramatically improve the health and resiliency of our forests.
More specifically, with fires breaking out across the country in recent years, too much federal funding has been transferred from forest management to firefighting. The resource drain perpetuates the problem and increases the risk of future wildfires. By allowing more flexibility in how funds flow between various agencies, this bill would fix the problem without authorizing new spending.
This bill eliminates duplicative paperwork and begins to address lawsuits set up to stop responsible forest management programs, like logging infested trees. Both of these reforms will help eliminate hurdles we’ve dealt with in the Black Hills.
The bill also increases tribal participation in forest health projects and strengthens impact aid to South Dakota schools that have Forest Service and other federally controlled lands in their districts. It’s an important bill that can help make sure those magical winter hikes through the Black Hills’ snow-covered trees can be experienced by this generation and the next.