A Rapid City legislator said he will try again next year after failing to designate state funds for preventative measures against mountain pine beetles.
Rep. David Johnson, R-Rapid City, participated in a Black Hills National Forest Advisory Board meeting Wednesday at the Mystic District Ranger Office in Rapid City, where he updated the board on his failed beetle legislation. The main run of the 2019 legislative session concluded March 13.
Johnson said he hopes to work with members of Gov. Kristi Noem’s administration on a funding request for the 2020 legislative session.
“I will be asking for some more state money, and frankly, I’m going to ask for twice as much,” Johnson told the forest board.
During this year’s legislative session, which is over except for a day set aside to consider vetoes on Friday, Johnson and the governor’s office were at odds over the fate of approximately $700,000 that remained in the state’s mountain pine beetle mitigation fund.
With the beetle infestation in the Black Hills reduced below the level of an epidemic since 2017, the Noem administration wanted the $700,000 in leftover beetle money returned to the state’s general fund. Johnson proposed placing the money in a new forest health and resilience fund, to support preventative measures intended to make the next cyclical beetle infestation less severe.
Johnson’s proposal failed to win support from the Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee, and the money will be directed back into the general fund as requested by the Noem administration.
Jason Simmons, a policy adviser to Noem, said Friday that the administration thought Johnson’s proposal lacked some important elements, including a plan for how to distribute the money. Simmons also said the state’s Agriculture Department already conducts some anti-beetle activity, but Johnson questioned the sufficiency of that effort.
Simmons said it’s possible that Johnson and the Noem administration could come together on a plan for preventative mountain pine beetle funding in the future. Regarding Johnson’s overall contention that more state funding should be committed to preventative measures against mountain pine beetles, Simmons said, “I wouldn’t say that we disagree with him.”
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Johnson said in testimony to the Joint Appropriations Committee last month that 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.
The bugs ravaged about one-third of the Black Hills National Forest and killed millions of trees during the 20-year epidemic, which began in 1997. The beetles kill pine trees by boring beneath the bark and introducing a fungus and larvae that block the movement of water and nutrients.
Johnson said this week that additional anti-beetle funding from state government could be used in several ways to lessen future beetle impacts on federal, state and private land. He is the president of Johnson Tree Company but described himself as an urban forester and said he does not foresee his company receiving any state funding for anti-beetle work.
Because beetles are thought to thrive on dense stands of ponderosa pine trees, Johnson said state funding could be used to make dense ponderosa stands thinner. That could be accomplished with a range of methods, from using chainsaws to cut down thick groves of small trees to hiring loggers to selectively harvest larger trees.
Plantings of oak, aspen and other deciduous trees could be funded to encourage greater biodiversity and insect-resilience in the forest, Johnson said. Funding could also be used to cut down dead or dying trees that pose dangers to roadways and other public areas, and to clear dead and dying trees out of the forest to prevent them from fueling wildfires.
Pesticide spraying could also be deployed in some areas, including around homes, to prevent beetles from infesting high-priority trees, Johnson said.
Johnson is hopeful that federal grants could be obtained for much of the work and used as a match with state and private funds to stretch all of the dollars further.
Many preventative beetle efforts are already being undertaken by the U.S. Forest Service as part of its Black Hills Resilient Landscapes project in the Black Hills National Forest. Johnson said that project could be augmented with state funding of similar projects on the many parcels of state and private land that are intermixed with the national forest.
“There’s no other way but a collaborative, all-lands approach to get the forest back in a healthy condition,” Johnson said.