MPB, “cut-and-chunk”, and the misapplication of forest science

Sometimes, things are just stranger than anything you could make up. I think someone else may have posted some of this, but I can’t find it so my apologies to those who’ve seen it before.

From South Dakota’s Capital Journal article, “Study: Large percentages of healthy trees cut in effort to fight mountain pine beetle”, you can find it here:

“Reports obtained by the Capital Journal suggest earlier efforts to control mountain pine beetle in the Black Hills may have killed more healthy trees than diseased trees in areas of some counties….In two counties, Lawrence and Meade, the majority of the trees marked and cut were not infested, meaning within these treated stands the crews caused more tree mortality than the beetles, said a report obtained by the Capital Journal from the office of the South Dakota state forester.”   That’s a report from the state forester, not some tree-hugging hippies. What happened? Isn’t the cut-and-chunk approach (in which presumed MPB-infested trees are cut into small chunks to stop beetle development) based on repeatedly proven facts based on unquestionable science? Apparently, some “facts” were open to interpretation, and asking a few questions about the “science” involved might have been appropriate:

 “Of the 191 total trees studied by the group in those areas, only 36 percent of trees cut in Lawrence County and 22 percent in Meade County were infested with mountain pine beetles.”  oops…. how could that happen?  It turns out that  “Scott Jacobsen, a spokesperson for the forest service, said the contract between the forest service and Meade County did not include a definition of an infested tree.” (this from another article, “Beetle battle: Logger defends ID methods in Black Hills”,  Turns out, those charged with putting sound forest management into practice perhaps didn’t actually know what a MPB-infested tree looks like, or at least couldn’t agree on it. In that knowledge vacuum, most any tree was fair game, apparently including many with no MPB presence but with one or two turpentine beetle pitch tubes (close enough?)

Of course, the side story is that Meade County commissioner Alan Aker, who has been “involved in overseeing the work of the county”, just happens to also own a logging company, Aker Woods, which has been “responsible for determining which trees to cut.” Commissioner Aker has also been a leader in the “The Bug Stops Here” campaign (their slogan: “Enough talk.  It’s time for action. Donate Dollars. Kill Beetles)”  Again from the Capital Journal: “As money was being collected, Meade County began to hire workers to begin waging war against the beetle. Records indicate that in August 2012, Aker Woods was hired to mark trees that were infested with pine beetles. In seven months of work, Aker Woods was responsible for marking 1,960 trees that the company determined to be infested – on the basis of the verbal agreement with the U.S. Forest Service.”




34 thoughts on “MPB, “cut-and-chunk”, and the misapplication of forest science”

    • While it isn’t a perfect remedy, it is a mitigation measure during an ongoing infestation. Matching tree densities to annual rainfalls can significantly affect how often and how severe these outbreaks can be. There IS value to thinning overcrowded forests, instead of letting the bugs pick the trees. Instead, some people like to say that we should do nothing about it, letting “nature” re-balance things (in ways humans won’t like).

  1. In my vast experience with marking bark beetle trees, we had very specific indicators to look for in identifying infested trees. Some guidelines were species-specific and some were specific to the kinds of beetles. That being said, my experience was in selecting trees for salvage, and I haven’t seen any kind of “cut and chunk” strategy in the Forest Service. The practice of not salvaging dead and dying trees within wildfire perimeters is often a trigger for enhanced bark beetle populations. Also, delays to salvage projects can often lead to MANY new generations of bark beetles. So, you can see how things can get out of hand very quickly. We’ve had a mild and dry winter, here in the Sierra Nevada, and the Rim Fire will probably be a trigger for another destructive bloom.

  2. Re: “Of the 191 total trees studied by the group in those areas, only 36 percent of trees cut in Lawrence County and 22 percent in Meade County were infested with mountain pine beetles.”  oops…. how could that happen?  It turns out that  “Scott Jacobsen, a spokesperson for the forest service, said the contract between the forest service and Meade County did not include a definition of an infested tree.”” AND “Turns out, those charged with putting sound forest management into practice perhaps didn’t actually know what a MPB-infested tree looks like, or at least couldn’t agree on it.” AND “Meade County commissioner Alan Aker, who has been “involved in overseeing the work of the county”, just happens to also own a logging company ”

    –> Hopefully, this will be the last time this happens, especially with all of the light focused on this.
    –> Not to excuse this failure but it is important to consider that it is better to err on the side of being too aggressive than it is to be too cautious in intervening in order to reduce the risk of an outbreak. Better to cut extra trees and reduce the chance of those trees being attacked by residual insects and turning into an outbreak. In the south we deliberately cut seemingly healthy trees surrounding the hot spot out two tree heights in radius beyond the obviously infested trees. Experience has shown us that the lack of pitch tubes doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of insects on the tree who have just arrived and haven’t yet had time to bore in far enough to reach the cambium and initiate the flow of rosin/pitch. So in a tenth acre hot spot it is not unusual to cut more trees who aren’t infested but may be inoculated than it is to cut obviously infested trees. It is a balancing act and oversimplifications like requiring five pitch tubes are a serious mistake in dealing with southern pine beetles and I suspect that there is a good chance of that being true for the mountain pine beetle also.
    –> I’m having a little trouble understanding why a logger would want to cut extra trees when they were reduced to two foot blocks and had no marketable value. One would have to understand the contract payment mechanism to further ferret out any significant incentive to over cut.

  3. Bob

    Hopefully not because if you haul infested or inoculated trees all that you do is make things worse as the wind whips the beetles off of the logs and into the trees alongside of the roadway. So, its about the worst thing that you can do. You should cut them and a surrounding buffer and leave them in-place where they fall.

    • I have been hauling chunks of beetle-killed lodgepole from one side of the Mt. Hood NF to the other for years. Chunks cut into 16″ lengths for my wood stove, and cut from dead trees that the beetles had long since left. Not many lodgepole remaining (that are legal for woodcutters to take — on the Mt. Hood, they have to be down; no cutting standing dead trees). This year I cut as much dead/down spruce as lodgepole.

      • Steve

        That isn’t a problem. I think that we are on the same page. My concern is hauling logs on a trailer where the wind whips through the whole load with both upward and downward drafts with beetles still on the logs.

        • I know, Gil. I was being a bit facetious. Its no good to help the beetles spread faster than they will on their own. But leaving all those chunks of wood in the woods seems wasteful, even if it helps forest mangers deal with an infestation.

          • Here in the Sierra Nevada, bark beetles are expected to travel at least 12 miles per generation. With 5-6 generations per year, there is little chance to contain the bugs, especially with the terrain the way it is. The LA Basin really paid the price for forest neglect. Both public and private lands suffered equally, with the State having to step in and deal with dead trees when home owners couldn’t afford to, all at once. Big Bear, Lake Arrowhead and Idyllwild all had significant acreages of dead trees throughout their communities. Many of those trees ended up in landfills, or trucked to “disposal sites”, for burning in piles.

    • Look, Larry, if you want to assert that Supervisor Bobzien is “on the take”, you need something to support your claim. It’s really not OK to accuse people of illicit behavior on this blog without evidence. Sure we have our disagreements, people do annoying things, or use annoying tactics to promote their agendas, or make claims that we can discuss and disagree about, but, in my opinion, “on the take” without evidence is over the line.

      • All it takes is the mere appearance of corruption to be “removed from office”. No Forest Supervisor is going to risk his career for something like this. He may have a bias but, every Forest Supervisor has a bias. AND, Larry Kurtz, filthy messages do not advance the efforts of serious environmentalists. F-word name-calling is something I (for one) won’t approve as a moderator here.

    • hi Larry (Kurtz), I think the only person with a possible conflict of interest described in the articles I read was a county commissioner, who allegedly was involved with raising money to mark trees, while being an owner of the company that was hired to do so. I didn’t see any allegations of wrongdoing by any FS personnel. GK

  4. Rather than starting a new post, here is an article on the spruce Bark beetle supporting my contentions that fast action to attack small hot spots is a viable tool for minimizing the impact of the SBB by reducing the number of outbreaks. Due to species differences, the methods are different than for pine beetles but science gives us the tools that we need. To quote from the article “Telluride has had spruce beetle problems in the past, particularly on the ski area, but land managers have been able to treat problem spots and prevent full-scale outbreaks by using methods like trap trees, debarking and timber removal.”

    Too bad the USFS backed off in 2005 when the SBB hot spots in a Colorado Wilderness area were not dealt with as the wilderness area laws allowed (contrary to what is stated in the article as noted in previous posts on controlling the SBB here on NCFP). Too bad all of the private landowners have lost or are at risk of loosing their spruce trees as noted by the regional USFS SBB entomologist in other posts here.

    Almost a decade later when treatments are less effective and more expensive due the SBB having grown beyond hot spots to an epidemic outbreak, the USFS is now taking action as noted here “The US Forest Service is taking action to address the bark beetle infestations. The Rocky Mountain Region is focused on increasing the pace and scale of active forest management across Colorado. Each National Forest is stepping up forest treatments, and many are working collaboratively to strategically plan and apply work to the areas that need it most. The US Forest Service now has four 10-year stewardship contracts to remove dead trees to restore forests and increase their resiliency.” Hopefully the USFS has enough evidence to back down those opposed to sound forest management and show them that a ‘a stitch in time saves nine’

  5. Hi everyone. I’m the evil, corrupt, tree-killing county commissioner/logger, Alan Aker. South Dakota is the lowest-tax state in the union, and county government revenue is strictly limited by statute to inflation, so we don’t have a lot of money to waste. As a consequence, we set commissioner pay at about $15,000 per year, and we expect county commissioners to have another source of income. In my case, it’s logging. Because our counties are small and we expect commissioners to have other occupations, SD statute allows county commissioners to bid on county projects. In this instance, I asked our assistant to take extra measures to try to get bids in competition with mine. Aside from publishing the bid through required channels, we went to the expense of sending a personal letter to every single forester on the roster at our state forestry website. We got three bids. Aker Woods bid $17.76 per payment unit. The two other bids were both over four times higher.
    As for the accusation that Meade County cut un-infested trees, that’s false. The forest service’s written inspections of the work characterized it as “excellent” and “meeting all criteria”. Except for 1-2% of trees cut for safety reasons and not billed to the county, all trees cut had some level of MPB infestation. The “study” allegedly showing a majority of trees were not infested were from an arboriculture professor named John Ball. Mr. Ball is unhappy with me because he and I both attended meetings on MBP in which he referred repeatedly to a “study” and “paper” on MBP. I asked if I might see it and the data he relied on. He initially refused, then admitted it didn’t exist. He was fair enough to admit in the newspaper article that his survey of the Meade County work was not based on the forest service definition of “infested”, was not a random sample, and was not intended to be used in evaluating the Meade County program.

    • AlanA

      Thanks for providing the “rest of the story”

      Don’t sweat the small stuff – if you are a masochist and decide to hang around this blog for any length of time you’ll find that those opposed to sound forest management don’t really care what the facts are. The are intellectually superior to anyone involved in forestry and have the advantage of having 100% accurate ESP. Their main problem is that they don’t realize that ESP stands for Extra Sensory Perversion. 🙂

      You’ll find that there are a few of us on here who actually know something about the science underlying sound forest management of the total scope of forest ecosystems and are interested enough in our National Forests to stick to the truth as defined by established science validated by years of repeated research and operational implementation. We are open to all points of view but aren’t going to blindly swallow “new science” that contradicts a very large body of science validated by time. Those who don’t know anything about the science will accept anything as long as it agrees with the mantras that they have been taught by their Pied Pipers. When you counter them with significant evidence that counters their point of view their answer is usually silence or attacks on straw men that have nothing to do with what was said or even better, they’ll resort to slander and innuendo based on their ESP. Sorry that you had to experience the latter from one of our in-house lawyers who frequently forgets that people are innocent until proven guilty. Every effort to get those opposed to sound forest management to discuss these issues on a point by point basis has proven to be a waste of time.

    • Uhh: Mr. Akers refuted nothing. The trees harvested allegedly for ‘safety’ were milled to bank a low bid. The state forester has been reprimanded by his Republican superiors and threatened with termination.

      This story is not over.

      • LarryK

        First, let’s address the accusations against Mr. Akers. If “Mr. Akers refuted nothing” please tell us, point by point, what is wrong with his defenses below:

        Point 1: Can you provide evidence to refute this defense: “As for the accusation that Meade County cut un-infested trees, that’s false. The forest service’s written inspections of the work characterized it as “excellent” and “meeting all criteria”. Except for 1-2% of trees cut for safety reasons and not billed to the county, all trees cut had some level of MPB infestation.”

        Point 2: Can you provide evidence to refute this defense: “Mr. Ball … was fair enough to admit in the newspaper article that his survey of the Meade County work was not based on the forest service definition of “infested”, was not a random sample, and was not intended to be used in evaluating the Meade County program.”

        In reviewing the article again, it seems that there is no wrong doing here on the part of the county or Mr. Akers as I attempt to show below. Based on the article as well as my personal knowledge and experience, I would lay this all at the feet of the state dept. of forestry for abandoning sound forestry practices in order to appease Mr. Ball. The USFS criterion of one pitch tube should have been retained as the criteria as I explain in point “C” below.

        Point A: “Forest Service Silviculturist Blaine Cook said they considered any tree with one pitch tube to be infested in order to reduce the possibility of future pine beetle attacks. “The district took the position of being aggressive,” said Cook. “We are out to minimize the bug march.” Based on their agreement with the Forest Service, Heck noted that Lawrence County had a 97 percent rate of successfully marking and cutting trees with blemishes.
        Heck said that Lawrence County was obligated to follow the Forest Service definition of an infested tree and not the state’s definition. “Since we weren’t using state dollars and were using county dollars, we had to follow their rules.””
        –> I agree with this entirely, you can’t post a person beside every tree with 1 to 4 pitch tubes and call in the logger every time a tree reaches 5 pitch tubes. If the area is infested one has to assume that trees within the area will be infested even though they may not show signs of infestation when the marking crew is on site. The job is to “reduce the possibility of future pine beetle attacks”.

        Point B: “the new requirement, which followed the release of the study, was to ensure the accurate identification of infested trees.”
        –> So how can you fault someone for not following the revised regulations when the revised regulations weren’t in existence until after the logging job was done?

        Point C: ““Lawrence County crews have also had a substantial improvement over their marking efforts from last year; however, they need to improve their ability to identify infested trees,” the report said. It further noted that Lawrence County did not identify 15 percent of trees that the recent study later determined were actually infested.” Emphasis added to substantiate a point below.
        –> Wow this takes the cake – First they were wrongly faulted for being too aggressive and now they are wrongly faulted for not being aggressive enough. Did the rocket scientists involved in that “15 percent” determination not realize that it was his fault and his new 5 pitch tubes regulation that caused the problem and not the fault of the markers? Unless those checking the markers checked within a day of the markers, what we most likely have here are trees that weren’t marked because they had less than 5 pitch tubes when marked and 5 or more later when the checkers got around to checking. Things happen fast in an outbreak, that is why you have to be aggressive (See “A” above). This sure appears to be a case of the markers being dammed if they do and dammed if they don’t. The real problem is people without any operational experience saying that the USFS guidelines of one pitch tube are wrong, upping the criteria to 5 pitch tubes and then wondering why the “markers” screwed up again in the opposite direction. The trouble makers are the people without any operational experience who screwed up when they changed the rules without having sufficient knowledge to make such a judgment.

        LarryK: The story is over unless you have concrete point by point evidence to refute what I’ve laid out. Forget platitudes – just concrete refutations point by point.

        • Additionally, I can think of many situations where green non-infested trees can be cut “for safety”. You need space for landings and green trees along the edge are cut “for safety”. Forest Service contracts also include provisions for green hazard trees, too. Sometimes, “reviewers” will see green logging slash on the ground, deciding that it must have come from healthy non-infested trees. In such projects, you will always have some damage to the residual stand from skidders. This is a known “cost of doing business”, and there are acceptable levels of “skin-ups”. There are guidelines for marking these kinds of “damaged trees”.

          Regarding marking the trees, most timbermarkers are usually too conservative in finding and marking bug trees. In an infestation, you usually see additional mortality as trees are felled, logs are skidded and waterbars are installed. Sometimes it is significant enough to re-enter the stand and take the additional “fresh kills”.

  6. The link below is to a photo that sums it all up (if it goes through…I’ve had trouble posting this photo before)

    “cut-N-chunk” is a handy “band aid”…until the real thinning can catch up. It costs about $6.00/tree. It’s handy to “knock down” new infestations…where you have like 10 trees per patch…of course the “thinning” IS the pro-active solution…but it might be a few years before the thinning catch’s up. I went to logging when I was 16 years old…you could do that in those days…and we used to “chase bug trees”. The USFS would give us a quad map with “bug patches” marked on it…thirty here…50 there…and we’d go cut and skid em out. If it was to steep, we’d cut and burn em (in the winter of course).

    • Yes, Derek, You have posted that photo before. And I’ve posted this response before:

      Submitted on 2013/03/21 at 4:35 pm
      RE: The South Dakota picture.

      Ah, the Black Elk Wilderness, site of my first solo Wilderness backpacking trip.

      But wasn’t much of the Black Elk Wilderness actually logged, mined, developed, etc prior to being designated a Wilderness area in 1980? Doesn’t the “white man” history go back pretty far in that area? How does/would that historic management (or likely exploitation) of that area impact the area now, and the into the future? How did that previous management in what became the Black Elk Wilderness impact not only the size of trees, but also the composition of tree species?

      Also, are we supposed to believe that all the forests/trees to the left of the Wilderness line were “treated” as the photo claims? And again, that nothing to the right was “treated” pre-1980.

      Also, looking at the aerial view of this map you can clearly see how much of the forest OUTSIDE Black Elk Wilderness has been impacted by beetles.

      For example, look at the map in the aerial view and check out the portion of the Black Hills National Forest and state forest to the north/northwest of the Black Elk Wilderness (around Palmer Creek Rd going clear to HWY 87 and 244). You’ll see that area outside of Wilderness has also been heavily impacted by bark beetles.

      If you look on the map you’ll also notice the same deal outside of the Wilderness on the southwestern side, between HWY 87/89 and HWY 16. You can also clearly see lots of evidence of logging and logging roads in that area too…yet there is lots of beetle activity too.

      Seems to me that the photo point that Derek settled on was carefully crafted to fit with his agenda and world view. That has to be tough to pull off from an airplane.

  7. Oh.. no…the Black Elk Wilderness really saw no management, especially what you see in the photo. Before 1980 it was, and still is, part of the Norbeck Wildlife Preserve and logging wasn’t exactly emphasized in that. That designation didn’t preclude logging for wildlife habitat, and in the mid 70’s the USFS did build a road into the SE section of the preserve (just off camera to the lower right)because the dense forests were becoming a “dead zone” for wildlife and some thinning, mostly PCT was done. In fact that road prism was converted to a hiking trail after 1980. It’s not a “sea of old growth” either…I have hiked all the trails in the photo…and it’s just not there. There’s some beautifull OG “around it”…like Mt. Rushmore…but not so with Harney Peak…which is what you’re looking at in the photo. I’ve seen old time photos of the area from the 1920’s…and lo and behold…lookin kinda ragged from, you guessed it…MPB. Lotsa dead snags.

    I must also confess, that Matt has forced me to look at the photo I posted. It was from 2009…and yes, some of the “treated areas” in Custer State Park have died since. Mostly the area to the west of Little Devils Tower…which was Pre-commercial thinned about 15 years ago. Never-the-less, Custer State Park embarked on an aggressive thinning program to stem the MPB…including very expensive heli-logging in places. The cut-N-chunk method was pretty much pioneered here, and was used to stem the MPB until such thinning could occur. The photo does accurately reflect that effort. However, it would appear the “PCT stand” was sacrificed to the MPB and wasn’t worth helicopter thinning. If anyone wants to “compare” the Park Forest today with the wilderness, just Google Earth the following lat. and long. (in the search box on the upper left of GE):43 50 14N, 103 34 41W. I’ll let you decide. Thanks for calling me on that Matt. It’s about seeking personal truth.

    I do want to call attention to the fact that the area in the photo is a very high use “non-motorized” recreation area. I’d like to do a story ….someday…about “logging and recreation.” I’m gonna tell you boys and girls…the public likes the thinned stands on Custer State Park a lot better than the deadfall on wilderness. Custer State Park has WAY more “large diameter” trees now compared to the wilderness. You show me one person who won’t go hiking on the park because they’re offended by stumps, and I’ll show you ten who will never hike in the wilderness area because…well…it’s just plain dead. Anyway…logging is being done on high use “recreation areas” throughout the west. Bitteroot comes to mind…100’s of campgrounds in Colorado and Montana come to mind. Thinning…and logging…can be used to “save” many recreation areas in the West…and once again…when the public sees it working there, they’re gonna wonder why it wasn’t done everywhere. Reason enough to oppose them right Matt? LOL.

    And oh yeah,….the MPB is flourishing on the “outside” of the Wilderness. I encourage anyone here to “cruise around” with google Earth and compare the “mechanically thinned vs. MPB” areas. The MPB abhors dense forests…and any patch the USFS doesn’t thin, whether because it’s too steep or for Goshawk or thermal cover…the beetle seeks and destroys.

    My fascination of late…has been “what basal area of live trees does the MPB leave behind”? It’s pivotal to our debate. Google Earth 43 54 20N, 103 45 32W. This is an area near ground zero where the MPB took off in 2006. Close to bear Mountain lookout. The epidemic has pretty much run it’s course here (except you can see nearby where the MPB is “bayonetting the survivors” that the USFS didn’t thin) Most of the dead fall has fallen…so it’s easier to segregate the “green leave trees.” Look for the shadows of the green trees. I also know this area hasn’t seen any logging…since maybe the 50’s. It was left as a roadless. I’ve hiked through it when the MPB began(and you “could” hike through the deadfall). There is a “spruce” component on the north slope to the south…so some of these survivors could be spruce…but I think the “crown” that shows in the shadow indicates most are pine. If you want an example of what the MPB leaves behind on a 21st century “natural” forest…this would be it.

    • LarryK

      Agree – This water supply impact has been discussed on other posts here which indicate that there is more knowledge available than this interview reveals. Certain basic principles tell us that the concerns are real. Countless studies have shown the value of forests in providing clean water and reducing erosion so, buy deduction, we have very strong reasons to believe that sound forest practices used to mitigate these vast catastrophic occurrences is important. It is a delicate balancing act which has been hamstrung by people who are opposed to sound forest management.

      • Exactly why fire needs to be part of any restoration that includes hardwood release: as Matthew Koehler said cut and chunk is a band-aid in a ponderosa pine-dominated forest. I applaud mechanical harvest in the Black Hills for fuel reduction as long as legacy trees are preserved but am frustrated by a war on a native insect under the flag of private enterprise when it is helping to replenish stressed water supplies. Propaganda is a stupid way to manage a unique resource like the Black Hills, especially when it is also being threatened on each end with uranium extraction.

        You Republicans living in blue states must really hate your lives.

        • LarryK

          Re: “as Matthew Koehler said cut and chunk is a band-aid in a ponderosa pine-dominated forest”
          –> That is too broad of a generalization. It is true once the endemic population has exploded into an outbreak. It is not true when there has been no outbreak and small hot spots need to be aggressively controlled to minimize the risk of an outbreak.

          The rest of your comments are too cryptic for me to understand especially your stereotype of a whole class of people who have very different opinions on many subjects including National Forest Policy. Seems to me that stereotyping is the major cause of the world’s problems as people decide to eliminate whole classes of people who disagree with them. Who were those guys from Russia and Germany who did that before? Seems like they both had mustaches. Maybe we ought to roundup everyone with a mustache and _____ (you fill in the blank)? Seems like there are a bunch of people with beards and mustaches who are doing the same thing now. That must be proof positive that excessive facial hair is the sign of an evil person? I don’t think so – but that is where your stereotyping leads.

          • Hello: Just pointing out the fact that I never said anything about a band-aid and that the comment appears to come from Derek above. Thanks.

              • I’ve been saying all along that the three “C-words” should help us get through to a place where our forests will benefit from our activities. The three words have to go in order, with collaboration being the first part, including a thorough education process. We cannot move on to the second concept of “consensus” until all sides have been properly educated. Of course, not all multiple issues have to achieve consensus, and that is where the third “C-word” comes in. Wherever consensus cannot be met, compromises must enter into it. Certainly, compromise is an easier process if all sides know the issues, recognize the problems and work out solutions, instead of avoiding the three “C-words”.

                The unfortunate thing is that some people (from both sides) fear compromises and prefer polarization.

            • Matthew

              You are correct – LarryK totally misrepresented what Derek said and then attributed it to you.

              I interpret Dereks comment to equate to: Band aids have real value in reducing the risk of developing a systemic infection from a small untreated wound. They have no value once Systemic Sepsis has set in.


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