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Frank Carroll


The difficult days of the "Great Bark Beetle War" that started in 1996 and is just now ending will be celebrated in Custer, SD January 20, 2018 as it has for the past six years; with the Festival of the Burning Beetle and Bug Crawl. Every year more people come to help Custer pay tribute to the menace that so dramatically changed the landscape of the Black Hills, despite our best efforts.

The beetle festival was the brainchild of members of the Custer Arts Council to help communities deal with the emotional loss of so much remembered history. After all, we love the forests we are born in or used to. Dramatic changes are hard on people and systems. Our forest changed rapidly and relentlessly and is still changing. Major wildfires and other issues lurk just over the horizon.

While the timber industry, firefighters, and private landowners worked year-round to stem the tide, reducing fuels and thinning or spraying trees, people had no where to turn to express frustration or grief or other emotions common to losing something important.

The solution: Have a party. Burn a giant beetle in effigy. Have live music, a variety show, and light up the January night with fireworks on a grand scale. Bring some part of the spirit of Burning Man to the Black Hills.

With the active and direct assistance of the many volunteers, local government people, the fire department, and business owners, the festival is now in its sixth year and will not end anytime soon, according to organizers. While the festival does not make much money, selling lanyards for event venues, t-shirts, hats and even torches used to burn the beetle, all keep the project rolling.

A Request for Proposals has just been issued to artists across the region asking for bids to install a permanent art exhibition to “be a lasting symbol of the massive landscape changes that are part of the cyclical natural processes at work in our forest home….” Artists who respond to the RFP will be feted the day before the festival and the winning entry will be the center of several years of money-raising efforts, organizers said.

Spokesman Hank Fridell of Custer said the permanent art installation, under the auspices of the Custer Arts Council, would serve both to tell the story of what happened here from 1997 to 2017, and to alert future generations about the inevitability of the next outbreak. “The art will be a historic benchmark and memorial for people decades from now who find themselves in a life-changing bark beetle attack, as they surely will,” he said.

Planned events on January 20 include the variety show, beginning at 3:30, followed by the torch parade to Pageant Hill, site of the Burning Beetle and fireworks, and lighting the fuse, this year by Julie Oswald, a local philanthropist and valiant beetle fighter for many years on her hundreds of acres of private forestland. The fireworks show, provided by the Custer Volunteer Fire Department, is a highlight of the night and a great backdrop for the Burning Beetle, Fridell said.

Following the Burning Beetle, the public is invited to downtown Custer where eight major businesses will provide venues for food and live music.

National Geographic magazine covered the Burning Beetle in 2014 in a story about the bark beetle problem across about 50 million acres of the West and Canada. The pictures of the festival and the community response caught the attention of researchers and others interested in how people deal with major disasters like hurricanes and wildfires. Research is on-going, and so is the Burning Beetle.

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Frank Carroll is a freelance writer and columnist. He can be reached by emailing or visiting

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