A coalition of Black Hills lawmakers, foresters and other interested parties is at odds with the governor’s office about the proper use of approximately $700,000 in state funds left over from the fight against the mountain pine beetle epidemic.
The coalition of Black Hills interests wants to redirect the money toward proactive efforts to reduce the severity of the next beetle epidemic. The governor’s office wants to put the money back in the general fund.
The forum for the dispute is the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Appropriations. Last Thursday at the Capitol in Pierre, the committee heard testimony on House Bill 1120, sponsored by Rep. David Johnson, R-Rapid City. The bill would capture the remaining $705,101 from the state’s mountain pine beetle mitigation fund and designate it as a “forest health and resilience fund.”
“We’re asking, very simply, the funds that were put in the mountain pine beetle mitigation effort, which have already been appropriated and have already been purposed, just leave them alone,” Johnson said to the committee Thursday, according to an audio recording of the hearing. He is a tree nurseryman, arborist and president of The Johnson Tree Company in Rapid City.
Several other people also testified in favor of the bill, including other Black Hills legislators, Black Hills foresters and the Rapid City Area Chamber of Commerce.
The only opponent testimony came from Laura Williams, of Gov. Kristi Noem’s Bureau of Finance and Management. Williams said state government spent $10.8 million from its general fund to fight mountain pine beetles from the 2012 to 2015 fiscal years.
“Now that the mountain pine beetle epidemic has ended, that money is no longer needed,” Williams testified. “Those remaining funds should go back into the general fund.”
Black Hills National Forest officials declared the end of the beetle epidemic in 2017, after the bugs had ravaged about one-third of the forest's total area and killed millions of trees since 1997. The beetles kill by boring beneath the bark of a pine tree and introducing a fungus and larvae that block the movement of water and nutrients.
According to Johnson, the federal government spent $75 million to fight mountain pine beetles in the Black Hills from 2011 to 2017, while the state spent $14 million, Lawrence County spent $3.25 million and Pennington County spent $1.8 million.
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Although the epidemic is now over, that does not mean mountain pine beetles have left the Black Hills entirely. The bugs are native to the area, and the historical record is replete with infestations that have risen to epidemic levels on a cyclical basis. The end of the epidemic only means that the bugs’ numbers have dipped to a less concerning level.
Collaborative efforts have begun to make the Black Hills more resilient during the next epidemic. Research has led some observers to believe that a thinner forest is more resilient to the bugs. A thinner forest also contains less fuel for wildfires.
Backers of House Bill 1120 want the bill’s roughly $700,000 to be available as matching money for projects to reduce the risk of insect infestations or to reduce hazardous wildfire fuels — such as dead trees. Money from the fund would be limited to 50 percent of project costs, because the bill’s backers say federal matching funds are available for many projects.
Derek Larson, chairman of the Dakotas Chapter of the Society of American Foresters, asked legislative appropriators to be forward-thinking about mountain pine beetles.
“Entomologists have already cautioned foresters that our management today will affect the size and intensity of the epidemic in the future,” Larson testified.
Williams, of the BFM, said the state Department of Agriculture’s Division of Conservation and Forestry already has a $2.6 million budget from which it spends money to educate the public about insect and wildfire mitigation, and to assist with projects to make forests more resilient to infestations and fires.
Bill Coburn, chairman of the South Dakota Family Forests Association, called existing efforts “piecemeal” and said the money in House Bill 1120 would allow for greater collaboration across broader stretches of land.
“What we’re looking at is to try to think on a bigger scale,” Coburn said.
Thursday’s hearing ended with the committee’s chairman, Sen. John Wiik, R-Big Stone City, deferring action on Johnson’s bill. Wiik said the bill will be considered as part of the committee’s broader negotiations on a budget for the 2020 fiscal year.