The mountain pine beetle epidemic is causing great concern in the Black Hills and rightfully so. In the past decade, some 400,000 acres of pine forest have been attacked in the Black Hills. This compares with nearly 17 million acres of pine types infested throughout Western national forests. Masses of tiny, rice-sized beetles burrow into larger pine trees and a year later the conspicuous, red-needled trees really grab our attention. Like a slow-moving wildfire, these native insects are marching across the Black Hills creating public safety hazards, more dead fuel to feed a wildfire, and unwelcome changes in scenery. Even with these concerns, I am optimistic about long-term forest health in the Black Hills.
There are three main reasons to be optimistic about our pine forests: First, environmentally speaking, our ponderosa pine forests lend themselves to mechanical thinning. Thinning the forest in advance of the beetles works. The thinned forest trees are more resilient, they have more moisture and nutrients available to fend off beetles, and thinning reduces hazardous fuels.
Second, we can economically log and thin our Black Hills pine forests. More than 236,000 acres of high-risk pine forest have been commercially thinned by local forest product companies in the past decade. Even in difficult market conditions, timber sales provide a small return and enable more stewardship work on the forest. Another 200,000 acres of small diameter thinning, prescribed fire, wildlife and watershed protection projects have also occurred during this time, and this year environmental plans will be completed on 202,000 acres of high-risk areas. Sustaining jobs and improving forest health are good for the economy and the environment.
Third, public support across the Hills is remarkable. Pine beetles, like wildfire, know no boundaries. With more than 3,800 miles of interior boundaries on the National Forest, beetles and projects to stop them are literally occurring in people's back yards.
Yes, it is a great cause of concern but also helps us focus our actions. State and county foresters, private landowners, and citizen groups are stepping up assistance and direct control to combat the beetles and create Firewise neighborhoods. Removing the freshly hit trees or cutting and chunking trees in areas of new infestations are effective in slowing down the beetles. Elected officials, at all levels, are highly engaged and recognize the importance of forest health. Coordinated, focused work is the way forward.
Will the combined efforts stop the beetles from killing trees? No, there are simply too many beetles and too many dense intertwined trees, particularly on inaccessible terrain. You will continue to see red trees, especially on many steep hillsides where treatment is normally cost prohibitive (e.g. helicopters). But these areas are being isolated by forest managers in a broader strategy to save the forest.
My optimism lies in our collective ability to stay ahead of beetles and working together to do more. We know that thinning works in advance of the beetles. We will continue to work on the “leading edge” of the infestations to create a healthier and more resilient forest. We will also continue to remove freshly hit trees on a priority basis, especially where forest and public values are at highest risk.
Foresters, natural resource specialists and private citizens working together are clearly making a difference. No one is able to forecast when this natural insect epidemic will subside. Trees and portions of the forest will die but we will not lose the forest. There is enough collective willpower and resilience in our forests, people and communities to corral the beetles and regain a healthy forest.