NORTHERN HILLS — As humans, we use the forest in many ways, benefitting from the resources it offers to business, tourism, housing and recreation. Still, we are only one part of a large, diverse population that calls the Black Hills home.

We share the forest with the pine beetle as well as the pine marten. Goshawks, deer, elk, trout, even snails and uncountable insects hang their hats in the vast acres of equally diverse tree species that make up our forest.

But finding a proper balance between our uses of it, the lives of other species and maintaining the best possible conditions for the health of the trees, is a complex issue — particularly because the environment affected by the outbreak is also in some ways responsible for causing it.

Though pine beetle outbreaks are a natural forest cycle, a number of forest officials said that the combination of a warming global climate, years of drought, overstocked forest conditions and fire suppression have all helped create a forest environment primed for beetle infestation across the western United States.

“The mountain pine beetle is natural to the Black Hills — it's always here,” said Rhonda O'Byrne, Northern Hills District Ranger. “But (some) climatic or natural event occurred that just got them to where the conditions were right for them, and they just exploded across whole entire western United States.”

In a public Internet video, Werner Kurz, of the Canadian Forest Service, said that warmer winters and longer summers have allowed the beetles to survive through winter months in greater numbers. A study conducted by the National Center for Conservation Science and Policy in Ashland, Ore., further concluded that dry conditions in recent years have left pine forests starved for resources and therefore highly susceptible to a beetle attack.

Combined with a forest of dense, old growth stands — which the Forest Service maintained until the beetle outbreak began in the late 1990s — O'Byrne said the forest environment was in a state that was highly susceptible to beetle infestation.

In many areas, the forest remains in those conditions, which is why the Forest Service has sold tens of thousands of acres in timber sales in the past five years, as both the Forest Service and the timber industry are attempting to thin the forest back to healthy levels.

In a natural environment, the forest would thin itself with fire, but due to private land on the forest and fire suppression policies within the Forest Service, fires are by and large prevented or quickly stomped out.

From the vantage point of some environmentalist groups, though, replacing wildfires with human logging injures the environment, and fire should be reintroduced as a major thinning practice across the Hills.

Nationwide, the environmentalist group the Sierra Club has taken the stance that almost all commercial logging should cease in the forest and fire should be reintroduced. Sam Clauson, vice chair of the Black Hills Group of the Sierra Club, said without fire, we've fallen behind in managing the forest, and the ecosystem has suffered because of it.

“Pine are a fire-dependent species,” Clauson said. “They need to be controlled somehow or another … The pine beetle is sort of saying, 'We're taking over where the industry didn't do it, that the Forest Service has not done it. They haven't thinned properly.'

“We've controlled fire — and you have to, I suppose — but we've probably overdone it in a lot of cases,” he added.

Other environmental groups question the very extent of the damage the beetles are doing to the forest. In a letter commenting on the Forest Service's Mountain Pine Beetle Response Project, which is intended to speed its response to new beetle attacks, environmentalist group Friends of the Norbeck suggested that the ecological consequences of a widespread beetle epidemic have generally been “greatly exaggerated.”

The group claimed that in many ways, the beetles actually benefit the environment. Among others, they argued that dead and downed beetle trees provide shelter for a multitude of insect and animal species, and the fire danger of a beetle-killed tree that has lost its needles is lower than that of a green, living tree.

“Beetles are not destroying our forests — rather, they are creating new ecological opportunities, increasing biodiversity, and improving ecosystem health,” the Norbeck group wrote. “Timber production may be an appropriate activity in the right places at the right times and with the right methods, and there may be economic benefits from utilizing some of the dead trees that are now abundant on the landscape, but from an ecological standpoint there is little or no need to remove trees killed by insects, and tree removal may cause ecological harm and exacerbate insect outbreaks.”

The group also claims that heavy logging machinery in the forest could compact the soil and affect the ground's ability to retain water, and also destroy the habitats of species like pine martens and goshawks.

Brian Brademeyer, executive director of Friends of the Norbeck, said the best thing for the forest would be to leave it untouched and let it become a natural wilderness.

“The best thing (the Forest Service) could do (is) get out of the forest,” Brademeyer said. “Stop this roadwork. Stop building roads, stop logging trees … it doesn't accomplish anything they claim to accomplish.”

“They don't know what they're missing, what it could be,” he added. “There isn't any place you can go that hasn't been altered.”

While beetle-killed trees may benefit the ecosystem, Kurz said they also present an unseen problem.

A healthy, green tree photosynthesizes light, absorbs and stores carbon and produces oxygen. When that tree dies, it stops absorbing carbon and instead releases its carbon store into the atmosphere.

One dead tree may not pose a serious environmental threat in terms of carbon, but across the western United States, the Forest Service estimates that mountain pine beetles have killed 41.7 million acres of forest, and a large portion of Canada — including 41 million acres in British Columbia alone — has also been affected.

That many trees becoming carbon sources could potentially pose serious atmospheric issues. Kurz said that in 2009, the beetle-killed forests of British Columbia emitted more carbon into the atmosphere than the region's entire human population.

Tom Troxel, director of the Black Hills Forest Resource Association, said the issues of carbon release could be compounded if the beetle-killed forests caught fire.

“Dead, they're harmful to the atmosphere. On fire, they're devastating,” he said.

He added that “in five to 10 years at the most, those trees that have been killed by the beetles will have died and fallen over on the ground. That's going to really increase the potential for severe and high-intensity forest fires, and that's what has the real potential to affect air quality and watersheds. Then you get all the smoke and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.”

Additionally, every tree killed by the pine beetles is one less tree absorbing carbon from the atmosphere. That in turn could add to the earth's ever-warming climate.

With the current state of the environment being a partial instigator of the epidemic and beetle-killed trees possibly helping to perpetuate those conditions, Brademeyer emphasized that logging in the forest isn't the way to stop the beetle epidemic. The best way, he said, is to begin reducing global carbon emissions by not burning oil, and also letting nature take its course in the forest through fire so new, carbon-absorbing forest can grow back in its place — and studies show that it will, though it may take decades.

The many ways in which we humans use the forest makes it difficult to discontinue treatment, however. The Black Hills continues to be home to thousands of people who interact with it on a regular basis. We are as much a part of the environment as the other species that reside in it.

And to some, fire is not the only answer. Kurz said there are benefits to logging and active forest management, though admittedly, global atmospheric issues cannot be solved by logging alone.

“Understanding how we can use dead trees created by climate change — how we can use the opportunities created by climate change to grow new trees in regions where they may not have grown before or where we can enhance productivity through other forest management options — is an important process in helping us decarbonize the atmosphere,” Kurz said. “Forests and forest management will continue to play a role in the future in influencing the carbon cycle, but by themselves, they cannot solve the problem of fossil fuel emissions.”

This is the third article in an eight-week series that discusses the effects of the mountain pine beetle on the Black Hills. Next week's article will discuss the fire danger posed by a heavily infested forest.

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Environment helped, harmed by pine beetles, officials say

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