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South Dakota's congressional delegation is united in the battle against the mountain pine beetle but divided over recent legislation that would divert U.S. Forest Service land-acquisition funds into bug-control projects.

Republican Sen. John Thune has introduced legislation that would prevent the U.S. Forest Service from making land acquisitions for five years and use the money saved for timber management to control pine beetles and reduce wildfire threats.

Rep. Kristi Noem likes the idea and is following up with companion legislation in the U.S. House. She and Thune argue that more resources are needed for the pine beetle fight, which should be a higher priority than land purchases.

"The health of our federally owned forests is deteriorating at an alarming rate," Thune said Wednesday. "Rather than spending millions of dollars acquiring additional land each year, the Forest Service should be using those acquisition funds to improve management on the land it currently owns."

But Sen. Tim Johnson said the beetle fight should be funded without taking away money for national forest additions that can benefit the public and improve land management within the national forest system.

Money for Forest Service land acquisition programs comes primarily from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses money from fees on such things as energy development on federal lands for public land-conservation work, Johnson said.

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"While I am a strong proponent of getting the Forest Service the additional resources necessary to increase timber harvests and carry out other critical forest health projects, I do not believe a ban on land acquisition is the way to go," he said.

Targeted land purchases can benefit public land users and can be "a key tool to address checkerboarding of federal and private lands that can impede effective land management,” the senator said.

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Johnson supports related efforts to improve forest health, prevent wildfires and slow the spread of mountain pine beetles. And some of that is included in other provisions of the the legislation by Thune and Noem.

The legislation would require the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Forest Service to take steps to thin more acres of national forest each year. It also would continue work to reduce bureaucratic roadblocks to needed projects and "ensure large landscape forest restoration measures are a higher priority" and have adequate funding, Thune said.

Spokeswoman Courtney Heitkamp said Noem's efforts last year in promoting more forest treatment projects for beetle control and wildfire prevention would continue this year. Heitkamp said Noem believes that limited federal funding should be prioritized toward needed forest projects rather than adding more land to the federal system.

"Kristi thinks we shouldn't be buying more land when we can't take care of what we have," she said.

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

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