Million-acre forest plan designed to make Black Hills more resilient to fire, bugs

The Black Hills Resilient Landscapes Project mission is to create a diverse forest that is less susceptible to widespread fire and insect infestation. The plan calls for a pine structural stage modification process, including a proposal to cut encroaching pine from areas of hardwoods and grasslands. Pioneer photo by Jaci Conrad Pearson

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DEADWOOD — In roughly two decades, the Black Hills mountain pine beetle infestation has decimated approximately 215,000 acres of pine trees in the Black Hills, leaving drastically changed woodlands in its wake.

The devastation has spurred the U.S. Forest Service to develop the Black Hills Resilient Landscapes Project, with a request for comments from the public due Friday.

Designed to reduce fire hazards and promote biodiversity on more than one million acres of public land in western South Dakota and eastern Wyoming, the framework for the major new management plan, is set forth in a document titled the “Black Hills Resilient Landscapes Project.”

Rhonda O’Byrne, Northern Hills District ranger and manager of the project, said the program is the first step toward addressing the devastation caused by the mountain pine beetle epidemic and its impediment of meeting desired forest management standards and guidelines set forth in overall resource management plans.

“This is what we look back to for the plan ... What should we be doing here? ... Are we meeting the desired conditions today?” O’Byrne said. “Or is there something we need to do to meet the conditions in the forest that have drastically changed, due to the mountain pine beetle? When we looked at the most recent forest monitoring report, given the effect of the epidemic, we were not meeting structural stage objectives set out in the forest plan.”

Because the insects have decimated forests in some areas, dead and fallen pine trees have also created wildfire hazards. Meanwhile, natural reforestation of ponderosa pines has led to the development of dense stands of young trees that need to be thinned to promote healthy forest development. The Forest Service plan also seeks to protect and promote the growth of stands of aspen and hardwood trees, which are resistant to fire.

In order to address threats to a healthy forest, the forest service and its partners have responded by reducing stand susceptibility to beetle infestation, recovering the value of some of the infested trees, protecting recreation areas, and decreasing fuel build-up in certain areas.

While the epidemic appears to be slowing, the infestation has left behind a changed landscape with much of the forest now more open, necessitating the need for a new forest management plan.

“This project is the first step in taking a look at reducing those forest fuels and increasing structural stage objectives and other diverse communities,” O’Byrne said. “We want for them to be thinned well, for there to be grassy areas, thick, heavily forested areas, across the landscape. We want a good mosaic to provide for those needs that are out there.”

The project area includes National Forest System lands that are managed by the Black Hills National Forest within the areas designated by the Secretary of Agriculture under the amended Healthy forests Restoration Act and includes approximately 1,098,000 acres of National Forest Service lands.

The project area also includes 10 “management areas,” as set by the forest plan. Each management area has a management emphasis, which defines where different kinds of resource and use opportunities are available.

Three major means of action will be taken to carry out the management plan, including: fuel reduction and prescribed fire; enhancement of hardwoods and grasslands; and pine structural stage modifications.

The project includes mechanical fuel treatments, ranging from 3,000 to 7,000 acres per year and prescribed burning of up to 10,000 acres per year. Total acres implemented annually will depend on budget constraints and, for prescribed burning, weather conditions.

The project also includes a proposal to cut encroaching pine from areas of hardwoods and grasslands. Pine removal from aspen would take place on up to 3,000 acres; pine would be cut from encroached grasslands on up to 5,600 acres; and regeneration of declining aspen stands would occur on up to 5,000 acres.

Because the intent of the project is to create a diverse forest and thus, diverse habitat and scenery with less susceptibility to widespread fire and future insect infestation, a pine structural stage modification process is proposed. Currently, approximately 43 percent of the project area pine stands are mature, open pine forest, while the objective is 25 percent. In order to reduce this figure, the plan proposes converting some of the mature stands to young stands by removing some or all of the mature trees if there are enough pine seedlings and saplings to make a new stand.

Also, in order to create diversity, fuel treatments are proposed in some of the mature, dense pine forest stands, to increase these types of stands. Because the forest is below objectives for late succession pine forest, or old growth, some stands are proposed to be thinned or understory vegetation burned to enhance late succession characteristics and increase stand resilience.

In the young pine forest, removing some of the small trees in young stands, also known as pre-commercial thinning, increases the remaining saplings and prevents stagnation. In recent years, the Black Hills National Forest has received enough funding to pre-commercially thin about 13,000 acres of small trees per year. The need for thinning is much higher and will only increase as a result of the pine beetle infestation. If additional funding becomes available, the Forest Service expects to be able to accomplish up to 25,000 acres of pre-commercial thinning per year.

O’Byrne said that along with soliciting public input, the Forest Service is in the midst of completing other steps to ensuring the appropriate laws and regulations are followed prior to implementation of the plan.

“We hope to complete that recess by the fall/winter of 2017,” O’Byrne said. “Once that’s completed, we can start implementing the project, starting into 2018. The life of this project could be five to 10 years ... This is the first step in the direction we need to go. How fast depends on funding and available personnel.”

In the newly open stands, natural reforestation is occurring as pine seedlings become established. Because Ponderosa pine regenerates prolifically in the Black Hills, often there are so many small trees that they become crowded and must compete for limited resources. Growth slows, stems remain thin, and heavy snow can result in widespread damage. There is a need to manage these new stands to prevent stagnation and allow transition to other structural stages.

The report states that the beetle infestation has also resulted in a sharp increase in dead trees, which are hazardous fuels. The trees usually fall within a few years of being infested and can pile up and cause severely high fuel loadings. While these fuels are unlikely to ignite easily, if they do catch fire, they can burn intensely, damaging soils and causing problems for firefighters. As a result, the dead trees pose an increased hazard to public health and safety, infrastructure and communities, the need to reduce this hazard, especially near populated areas and critical infrastructure.

Because mature ponderosa pine are often resistant to fire, especially if there is space between trees and small pine trees are not resistant to fire, there is a need to thin out the small trees to prevent development of a fire hazard.

O’Byrne emphasized that the Forest Service is highly desirous of public input regarding this proposed project.

“This is one of those that the public has the opportunity to be part of how the national forest is managed, O’Byrne said. “If they have thoughts, we do encourage them to submit those, because we do read those and it does impact how we go forward with this program.”

Comments may be submitted at Send written comments to: BHRL Project, Black Hills National Forest, 1019 N. 5th St., Custer, SD 57730, or fax to 673-9350, c/o BHRL Project. Written comments also may be hand delivered between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. through Friday.

For more information, call O’Byrne, at 642-4622, or visit

Comments received in response to this solicitation, including names and addresses of those who comment, will be part of the public record for this proposed action. Comments submitted anonymously will be accepted and considered; however, anonymous comments will not provide the agency with the ability to provide the respondent with subsequent environmental documents.

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