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Custer State Park's Battle Against Beetles

October 11, 2011, 10:15 PM by Derek Olson

Custer State Park's Battle Against Beetles
CUSTER STATE PARK, SD - Over the past decade, more of the Back Hlls has become brown, thanks to the mountain pine beetle. And with thousands of acres of forest lost to the bugs, it may seem like the battle is lost. But foresters at Custer State Park haven't given up the fight.

"Right now we're removing trees infested with mountain pine beetle along needles highway," senior forester Adam Gahagan said.

The park spent much of the past summer identifying the infested trees.  On Tuesday, the scenic Needles Highway closed so the work to remove those trees could begin.

"Hopefully, we're removing 95 to 98 percent of the bugs, and at the same time thinning the rest of the forest to a stand that will repel the bugs better," Dan Sandford with Sanford Logging said.

Sanford's company is just one of a handful that the park has contracted to cart off the overrun pines. It's work they're doing more of these days.

"Fifteen years we've been in business, and it seems like the last two or three years the bug tree removal has become a bigger and bigger part of what we're doing," Sandford said.

However, most of the time, it's not a total loss.  If the infested trees are taken down in time, the lumber that comes from them can be sent off to a mill and used.

"Even though the trees are infested with beetles, right now until about next summer the structural properties of the wood are about the same as a normal green tree, non-infested tree," Gahagan said.

And although the situation is far from good, it would be a lot worse without these efforts.

"My speculation would be that 80 to 90 percent of the trees in this area would probably be dead if we did absolutely nothing," Gahagan said.

"The only way that's not going to happen is if we aggressively thin the stands we have left and remove every bug tree possible," Sandford said.

The Needles Highway won't reopen until the spring, which will give contractors some time to haul off the infested pines. Park officials have identified and marked more than 50,000 of them.

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