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The fight is over in the Black Elk Wilderness. The beetles won.

And they’re winning all through the Norbeck Wildlife Preserve, a 35,000-acre tract of relative isolation that includes the 13,000-acre Black Elk and the state’s highest point at Harney Peak.

That ravaged piece of high-country landscape is the epicenter of a plague of mountain pine beetles that is eating its way across the Black Hills. It is a biological version of a wildfire that could for generations change the face of this island of forest rising up from the surrounding plains.

The patches of rusty-brown pine trees that mark the destructive path of the beetles are appearing everywhere. Once limited to a few patches of dead or dying trees in the high country, they are now apparent from the highway near Crazy Horse, along the road to Rochford and on the ridges of Spearfish Mountain.

“Just about anywhere you go in the forest these days you can throw a rock and hit a beetle tree sooner or later,” said Kurt Allen, an entomologist for the U.S. Forest Service in Rapid City. “In my travels around the Hills, I’ve seen it just about everywhere.”

The “it” in this scenario is a rice-sized beetle with an appetite for pine and an explosive reproductive capability. As natural to the forest life cycle as snow and rain, the beetle can go about its boring business in the woods for years with few large-scale impacts: a patch of trees here, a denuded hillside over there, a few fingers of rusty brown on a vast slope of green.

But sometimes it explodes, swarming from tree to tree in a collective assault that, if left unchecked, magnifies itself into a year-by-year storm of destruction. It kills infected trees in a matter of months, turns them a telltale reddish-brown inside a year, leaves them needleless and gray within three years and sends them crashing to the ground or

into an impassable tangle of other dead pines within five.

Sometimes, the little bug can be brutal. And this is one of those times.

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This beetle outbreak — or succession of outbreaks, depending on whom you ask — is in its 13th year. It has already killed trees on 400,000 acres in the Black Hills, a recreation-rich landscape that includes 1.2 million acres of public land and 300,000 acres of private property.

This outbreak already is considered one of the worst in recorded history. Where it will rank when it is finished will be decided at least in part by the effectiveness of the ongoing human response.

That response includes “sanitation” work, which removes and mills infested trees with practical commercial value or drops them on the ground and cuts them into chunks that are inhospitable to beetle survival. It includes thinning healthy portions of the forest to make it more difficult for the young beetles that hatch and fly off hungrily for another tree.

And it includes prescribed burns that provide some of the benefits of thinning with a cleansing effect that also improves overall forest health and fights insects.

Today’s beetle infestation might not equal the bug plague of the late 1800s, but Black Hills residents underestimate its potential at our peril, said Frank Carroll, a planning and public affairs specialist for the Black Hills National Forest in Custer.

“The sheer physical number of insects on the ground is 10 or more times greater than recorded in scientific records to date — the literature, as they call it,” Carroll said. “And the intensity of this attack is breathtaking. The thing is like a slow-motion forest fire, and just as traumatic when it’s over.”

When will that be? Nobody, including Carroll, knows. But they are convinced that the epidemic will end sooner and have a less lasting impact through aggressive sanitation and thinning and through prescribed burns where they are appropriate — and safe.

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The Forest Service has spent millions on the battle. Counting the costs of prescribed burns, thinning projects and formal timber sales, the service has spent about $100 million over the past 10 years. Some of that is management that would have taken place anyway. But much of it is considered part of the beetle battle.

Carroll and others say South Dakota is fortunate to have a viable timber industry, which calls itself the forest products industry, to handle most of the forest management work. 

Bill Coburn, a procurement forester for Neiman Timber Co., the big player in the Black Hills with sawmills in Hill City, Spearfish and Hulett, Wyo., said loggers and processers could do more if the system of timber sales and contracts were streamlined.

The last major mountain pine beetle infestation in the Black Hills showed the benefits of sanitation and thinning. But it must be done without delays to work, Coburn said.

“We’ve seen this happen over and over. It’s not hard to figure out what to do,” Coburn said. “It’s just the policies and the restrictions that get in the way of getting it done.”

With analyses and appeals, the timber sales process for major projects typically takes about 18 months. Forest Service officials are seeking authority to expedite the process from the President’s Council on Environmental Quality.

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Some forest advocates believe the work is important but should also be done while keeping the beetle problem in perspective. Bob Burns of Black Hawk said forest managers and the timber industry have brought on some of the problem through past policies that treated the forest like “a tree farm,” setting it up for beetles by creating vast, too-thick stands of timber loved by beetles.

Thinning work and logging practices encouraged renewed stands of pine that eventually created problems. Thick stands of mature ponderosa pine tend to be more fire-prone and more easily attacked by beetles, he said.

“When they treated the forest like a tree farm, they ended up creating situations that are unhealthy,” Burns said. “The forest service has recognized this and is trying to incorporate more meadows, more hardwoods, conditions that are more natural and healthier.”

The necessity of aggressively controlling forest fires in a landscape where public and private land — and private structures — intermix also has lead to thicker stands in some areas, he said.

Burns agreed with Carroll and Coburn that more forest diversity is a good goal. But Burns isn’t

especially worried about the end result of the beetle infestation, even if it means a dramatic alteration of the landscape, at least for a time.

The forest will come back, perhaps with more aspen and birch and other trees and shrubs and grasses that have been squeezed out by pines, he said.

“I don’t think I’m looking at it with dread,” Burns said. “There will be diversity of hardwoods and other plants coming up. Some of these plants in the Hills have been crowded out by the pines for a long time. Pine beetles are one of nature’s methods of bringing in some balance.”

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It looks like balance gone wild in the Norbeck, and particularly in Black Elk. The wilderness designation there has meant no mechanized forest management was allowed. It also probably contributed to the dense beetle infestation that has wiped out almost all of the trees there.

But other areas are and will be affected as well, Burns said.

“I think the Black Elk has been used as a whipping boy to blame lack of management for all this,” he said. “But these beetle attacks are coming in managed and unmanaged areas.”

Less management does tend to mean more beetles. And it’s hard to argue that a perfectly powerful biological storm hasn’t hit the 13,000-acre Black Elk Wilderness. Most of the ponderosa pine trees are dead or dying. U.S. Forest Service officials estimate the loss today at 80 percent.

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Most of the rest will go soon.

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It has become a question of what to do with the tangled mess that’s left.

“The fight in Black Elk is over where beetle mitigation is concerned,” Carroll said. “The exception is our need to manage the heavy fuels that are now standing but will soon fall like matchsticks and cover the forest floor several feet deep.”

Those tangles already are becoming complications for the non-motorized recreation allowed in the Black Elk, posing obstacles on the ground and potential threats falling from above. They also carry the potential for wildfires in the future that Carroll said could be “quite severe and difficult to control.”

It doesn’t end at Black Elk,

either. The Norbeck Wildlife

Preserve overall has lost about

50 percent of its trees to pine beetles. And the boring goes on with each flight of the tiny bugs.

Forest Service resource managers have more options for fighting the infestations in Norbeck, which doesn’t have the stringent restrictions on human activity in place as in Black Elk. Even so, the overall outlook for the preserve is not bright.

“Norbeck is still in the game, but the flights that just happened will really affect things in the coming year or two,” Carroll said.

Most trees in the Norbeck are likely to be dead before it’s over. And the popular view from the top of Harney Peak will be changed for many years to come.

That same change is coming to large swaths of woods throughout the Black Hills National Forest, forest supervisor Craig Bobzien said, noting that is isn’t all bad.

“On the 10-year horizon, I believe we’re going to see a more open and more diverse forest,” he said.

People tend to worry about change, particularly when it affects a cherished natural resource like the Black Hills, Bobzien said.

“They are concerned about the scenery, of course. And there will be changes there,” he said. “Will all the trees be dead? No, I don’t think they will be. And we’re in a position now where we can make a difference.”

Coburn said that difference is likely to be defined in the next few years by the intensity and effectiveness of planned tree removal and other management. It is a difference that will matter to South Dakotans, their children and their grandchildren — and the Black Hills they love.

“Over the long term, what we’re looking at is saving the landscape,” Coburn said. “And you might have to sacrifice some trees to do it.”

Contact Kevin Woster at 394-8413 or kevin.woster@rapidcityjournalp.com

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