This aerial image near Rochford shows brown sections of the Black Hills National Forest affected by mountain pine beetles.

Photo courtesy Ben Wudtke/Black Hills Forest Resource Association

While it doesn’t have the partisan pizzazz of regulating free speech on college campuses, lengthening prison sentences for drug offenders or enhancing gun rights, House Concurrent Resolution 1003 could be one of the most impactful pieces of legislation approved in the 2018 session.

The resolution was sponsored by Rep. David Johnson, a Rapid City Republican and newcomer to the Legislature. In just his second year as a lawmaker, the 57-year-old business owner enlisted the support of more than 65 organizations and individuals who worked with him on what is known as the “resilient forest strategy.”

The resolution calls for a “cross-jurisdictional” strategy to protect the Black Hills National Forest from the next invasion of the mountain pine beetle and minimize the impact of future fires on western South Dakota’s most valuable natural resource.

The resolution, which passed unanimously in the state House and Senate, spells out the catastrophic damage and costs incurred by the mountain pine beetle — $1.5 million for private landowners, $5.5 million for West River counties, $13.9 million for the state and $77 million for multiple federal agencies. According to Johnson, a certified arborist, the pine beetles turned 400,000 of the forest’s 1.2 million Black Hills acres from “evergreen” to ever-brown.” He expects the next invasion to occur in around 10 years.

The prevalence of Ponderosa pines also needs to be addressed, according to Gregory Josten, the forester for the South Dakota Department of Agriculture. He told lawmakers that the density of the pines and the lack of the diversity in the forest make it more susceptible to devastating fires.

It was only in December when the Legion Lake Fire showed how quickly a forest fire can spread in the Black Hills. In just a matter of days, more than 54,000 acres were torched in the southern Hills that included private land, Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park. It could have been much worse.

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While the resolution sought no specific funding to diversify the Black Hills National Forest, it is a call to action. So far, we have yet to hear if Rep. Noem or Sens. Thune or Rounds will seek a similar resolution at the national level or will work with the appropriate federal agencies to protect the national forest.

The Legislature and state agencies can do more as well. It is certainly as important as the nonmeandering water issue that led to a special session last summer and has been the subject of considerable debate in the current legislative session.

The economic, recreational and aesthetic benefits of the Black Hills are undeniable. Johnson's hard work and blueprint for action have laid the groundwork for the enhancement of the forest. Let's hope this process moves forward and gets the support it deserves.

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