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President Barack Obama has included an increase of $35 million for forest management in his proposed 2011 budget.

That’s the good news, says Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, especially in a year in which the president has called for zero growth in total discretionary spending.

But Herseth Sandlin said she is worried about how the forest money might be allocated. The administration has proposed pooling all forest funds, suggesting that more of the forest budget could be spent on wildlife habitat, for example, and less on timber harvest and efforts to battle beetles and reduce the threat of big fires.

The South Dakota Democrat outlined her concerns Saturday at a round-table gathering in Rapid City of forest managers, state and local officials and forest-product industry representatives.

Herseth Sandlin said the additional $35 million might not be enough, anyway, to combat a growing mountain pine beetle infestation throughout Western forests. “I will be making the case to appropriators that we may need that, and then some,” she said after Saturday’s discussion.

Jim Neiman, chief executive officer of Neiman Enterprises, which owns forest-product companies in South Dakota and Wyoming, said he, too, is concerned about pooling the money.

“The current system, at least as it sits with the Black Hills, is not broken. Why fix it?” Neiman said. “In areas with no timber industry, it might be a moot point. Here, it’s critical. It has the potential to be devastating.”

Herseth Sandlin and Black Hills National Forest Supervisor Craig Bobzien said the local timber industry has been crucial to combating pine beetles and reducing fire danger through logging and thinning.

“This year, with the pine beetle onslaught, we’ve moved all of our projects for commercial timber sales into the areas where the pine beetles are,” Bobzien told the group.

Herseth Sandlin also said the presence of a viable timber industry might bolster arguments that money spent in the Black Hills to fight pine beetles could help save or create jobs.

“Everything in Washington is going to be jobs, jobs, jobs,” she said in an interview after the meeting.

Herseth Sandlin said the jobs theme might also help some of her legislative efforts on forest issues.

She has introduced bills that she touts as promoting healthy forests, renewable energy and rural jobs.

They include:

y  The Healthy Forests Restoration Amendments Act, which she said would strengthen tools for federal forest managers to bring the most diseased and fire-prone forests back to health. 

y  The Renewable Biomass Fairness Act, which provides energy produced from renewable biomass, like that produced from woody biomass from the Black Hills, an equal tax incentive as those for wind and solar. 

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Herseth Sandlin said she worked with Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., in an effort to prevent the Forest Service from diverting much-needed funding from the Black Hills National Forest to forests in other states, helping to get $2 million of an additional $40 million sent to the Black Hills for pine beetle mitigation.

Other millions went to Montana and Idaho forests with bug problems, according to Tom Troxel, director of the Black Hills Forest Resource Association. “All that money is just a drop in the bucket to what they needed,” Troxel said. “There needs to be a priority to make sure there’s money in the 2011 appropriation for all those issues so those problems don’t linger forever and ever.”

Troxel said the Forest Service is moving faster now to combat bug and fire threats than it was a few years ago. But, he said, “As fast as the Forest Service moves, the bugs are moving just as fast.”

Neiman said the Black Hills National Forest continues to have a problem that contributes to threats from beetles and catastrophic fire: It is a prolific producer of ponderosa pines.

He said the forest grows about 119 million board feet of timber a year, but the Forest Service has a budget that allows it to harvest only about 85 million board feet, on average.

Beetles have infested about 340,000 acres of the 1.2 million-acre Black Hills National Forest.

The group also heard a report on Custer State Park’s efforts to battle pine beetles, particularly where it borders the beetle-infested Black Elk Wilderness.

Park director Dick Miller said park crews have treated 62,000 trees, removing more than 20,000 infested trees. It has used a combination of chemical spray and cutting and recently wrapped up a helicopter operation that removed only infested trees.

Contact Steve Miller at 394-8415 or steve.miller@rapidcityjournal.com.

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