The trouble with the Black Plague is knowing if it’s really gone. While we have not experienced anything remotely like the events that killed perhaps a third of Europeans centuries ago, every year someone in the US. dies from Sylvatic plague, including bubonic plague.
It's the same with bark beetles. The entire Sierra Nevada is now in the grips of an epidemic that has killed over 100 million mature ponderosa and other pines in the past three years. It happened before in a big way in the 1940s, and many times before.
There was a major outbreak on the Boise National Forest in the early 1990s, but severe wildfires burned up significant parts of the beetles’ potential habitat and the epidemic abated, replaced by an epidemic of fires.
A new U.S. Forest Service plan to treat hundreds of thousands of acres of the Black Hills National Forest over time is doomed to failure in the big picture. It’s not that they shouldn’t try. They should. It’s that the beetles operate on a scale far beyond our power to control.
Drs. Russ Graham and Mike Battaglia of the Forest Service Rocky Mountain Experiment Station just published a review of the last century of our efforts to control the beetles. Everything from deadly poisons to cutting and chunking trees after they were hit bought very little success. We did not “stop” the recent epidemic by our actions as a newcomer forest officer claimed in a recent Journal story. The beetles stopped on their own. It’s what they do.
The Black Hills National Forest is a resilient forest ecosystem; maybe the most resilient pine forest in the nation. Our spring and early summer moisture ensures pine trees grow like a plague, quickly compounding, like interest on money, until numbers that were sustainable a decade ago are suddenly not sustainable. Trees here grow as thick as the hair on a dog’s back; dog-hair thickets.
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The challenge for the Forest Service and state and private landowners is to somehow manage that growth to minimize fire and insect damage and sustain clean water, a viable timber industry, recreation areas, beautiful scenery, and all the other things forests provide.
We know from long experience we won’t succeed, at least not overall. In specific areas, we will succeed, like in my front yard where I sprayed trees for a decade to keep them alive.
There are tens of thousands of acres we thinned so heavily it made even hardened timber operators flinch. Sunlight and rain have now spawned millions of new trees, young trees, growing so thick birds can’t fly through them, people can’t walk through them. And there is no money to manage the vast ocean of new green growth.
We could, and should, burn large areas of the forest at least every five to 10 years, but we won’t be able to do that, either, at least not on purpose. Large areas will burn, right down to the ground, in summer fires like those of the past decade. We’ll plant new trees and the cycle will begin again.
The challenge for those of us living in this forest is to take care of our own yards to the best of our ability. Thinning, opening dense stands, culling small seedlings before they get big, and other measures will help. Pines grow best in open stands with grass or brush underneath. Beetles and fires like dense trees.
The pine forests of the Black Hills will continue as they always have, despite our best efforts. Living here takes lots of work so it’s good the Forest Service is keeping after it.