Pine Beetles in the Black Hills

For those who need a break from Colorado pine beetle stories..Note that this story is the sixth article in an eight week series in the Black Hills Pioneer. Remember that the Hills are full of ponderosa pine, a different beast in terms of pine beetles than the lodgepole in Colorado, Wyoming and Montana.

Forest Service ‘optimistic’ about success against pine beetles

By Mark VanGerpen Black Hills Pioneer | Posted: Thursday, November 17, 2011 9:38 am

NORTHERN HILLS — The Black Hills National Forest faces some serious challenges in terms of combating the mountain pine beetle, but its managers say there is hope of success.

In terms of the beetle epidemic, Forest Supervisor Craig Bobzien said that with the variety of resources available to us, we can be optimistic about successfully preventing the total infestation of the forest.

“I’m of the belief — and I will say this is a shared belief among a lot of people who are working on this — that in the Black Hills, we have the ingredients in place to have the best chance of being successful in having a healthy forest, of really any place that I know of in the West that’s being threatened right now,” Bobzien said.

To achieve that success, the Forest Service has formulated a strategy for responding to the beetles, but it will also take cooperation with governments, landowners and other entities across the forest.

The Western Bark Beetle Strategy, published by the Forest Service in July, identifies three main “prongs” or considerations in treating for the beetles: human safety, forest recovery after a devastating infestation, and long-term forest resiliency through thinning and treatment methods.

Bobzien said the Forest Service treats for safety first, in areas like campgrounds, trailheads, roads and the wildland/urban interface where public communities meet forestland.

He added, though, that many of those areas aren’t facing serious public safety threats right now.

“(Safety) is our first priority, but it’s the smallest part of what we do on the Black Hills,” Bobzien said. “We don’t have many areas like that because we’ve been able to manage so much of the forest in advance of the beetles.

“We are really working to look at the areas that are both most at risk and where the public resource values are the highest — said differently, where we’d have the greatest consequence if we didn’t take any action.”

Strategically, Bobzien said the most effective place to be — and where the Forest Service is trying to be and remain — is in the “leading edge” zone, which is the area beetles are approaching but have not yet reached.

Strengthening the forest in those areas will presumably prevent the beetles from extending any farther, protecting the forest from further infestation.

But the cumbersome regulations by which the Forest Service must abide sometimes keep it from getting to leading edge zones before the beetles do, and Bobzien said some of the leading edge zones that were identified earlier are filling up with bug-hit trees pretty quickly.

Delayed action is nothing new for the Forest Service, which is hampered by federal regulations, budget processes and litigation from outside sources. Approving a timber sale can take years. Sometimes plans need to adapt during that time to meet new threats, but regulations prevent a quick change in direction.

“It’s like the Titanic – if you see a threat coming at you, how hard is it to change course and do something different? It’s not very easy,” said Northern Hills District Ranger Rhonda O’Byrne.

Bobzien said that the 325,000-acre Mountain Pine Beetle Response Project, along with various other projects that amount to about 200,000 acres, will help decrease response time to newly-hit areas and increase the ability to create a beetle-preventing barrier of thinned, healthy forest in leading edge zones.

Some of those projects could have boots on the ground by summer of 2012.

Bobzien said that approving that many acres for a quick response is critical to staying ahead of the spreading infestation.

“We have just got to look at every possible stand that could be threatened here and analyze this now,” he said. “I don’t think we can (assume) that this is moving at such a pace that we can keep up with it.”

O’Byrne said the Forest Service’s main defense in battling the pine beetles is the timber sale, which allows the timber industry to harvest trees on federal land and what makes thinning in leading edge zones possible.

Maintaining those timber sales in advance of the beetles is “clearly our niche here,” Bobzien said. Without timber sales, which actually create revenue for the Forest Service, then the Black Hills would have to rely on federal funding to fight the beetles, as many other forests in the U.S. do. And federal funds are in short supply these days.

Unfortunately, while the Black Hills has sold more timber than any other forest nationwide in the past five years, the beetles are still advancing, and the timber industry has limits to what it can economically log on the forest.

In other words, the timber sale can’t be our only preventative measure, and O’Byrne said the Forest Service recognizes that. The Forest Service is working with private landowners and volunteer organizations to find a solution for how to best treat the forest.

A lot of landowners and volunteers have come forward in the past six months, ardently trying to help the Forest Service remove beetle-killed trees from national forest land. But there are time-consuming processes for that too.

While O’Byrne and Bobzien said they are impressed with that effort forest wide, it’s not as simple as handing a volunteer a hardhat and chainsaw and setting him loose in the forest.

Legal questions need to be answered first: what degree of training will volunteers need to undergo? Who will pay for it? If a volunteer is injured on the forest, who is liable?

“We are trying to find some instrument that will let the Forest Service work with these other entities … so that the timber sale contract isn’t our only option,” O’Byrne said.

“Right now we’re looking through law regulation policy that affects the Forest Service, seeing if there’s some way that’s legal out there for us to be able to do it. We really want to be able to work with them, but it’s the mechanics of trying to be able to do that … All the federal processes, the laws that we have to meet, they’re there for a good reason, but it takes time to get through them.”

Along with volunteers eager to help are those eager to offer advice, which in turn generates a wide variety of ideas and values about the best treatment strategies and most critical areas to protect. Bobzien said there is no universal strategy for everybody to follow, because the beetles affect different jurisdictions that have different priorities and methods.

That said, Bobzien said there is a need for cooperation and forest-wide prioritization of areas that need to be treated.

“The reality of it is that we do have to prioritize areas, by looking at the values at risk and the consequences of not going there,” Bobzien said. “We clearly have to do that. We do that on a daily and weekly basis.”

Those priority areas naturally shift as new beetle attacks appear or existing ones expand, and even as funding is allocated and spent. Safety is always the top priority, but Bobzien said the Forest Service will also work to protect the economic, recreational and environmental assets in the forest as well, because even though fighting the beetles is tough to do with limited funds, doing nothing could end up costing even more.

This is the sixth 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 treatment options and tactics in combating the pine beetle.

Leave a Comment