For years, homeowners and tourists have watched as the Mountain Pine Beetle epidemic has ravaged the Black Hills.
Though government agencies and private homeowners have been working to battle the bugs, the infestation has continued to grow. But a new plan announced earlier this month has officials confident that they will be able to get in front of the beetles.
For people who live, work and play in the Black Hills, the mountains are a treasure.
“Everyday we wake up; take a breath, and say, 'Thank you, Lord, for putting us here.' It’s a mystical and beautiful place,” National Forest Advisory Board Chairman Jim Scherrer said.
But for more than a decade, the Black Hills National Forest has been under attack.
“Over the last 15 years, we’ve had this current Mountain Pine Beetle epidemic. It began kind of in the center of the forest and has been expanding out. Approximately 405,000 acres have been affected,” Katie Van Alstyne with the Forest Service said.
That’s about one-third of the 1.4 million acre forest. Not only does that make parts of the landscape unsightly, it also puts homes and businesses at risk due to enhanced fire danger.
Scherrer lives outside Hill City and takes the problem seriously.
“By and large, these properties around us are all going to be in danger of large-scale fires for the next 30 to 40 years,” Scherrer said.
Scherrer is also the chairman of the National Forest Advisory Board and owns 166 acres of land near the Norbeck Wilderness Area. The forest surrounding his property has been decimated by the bugs, which thrive in the overgrown stands of ponderosa pine.
But Scherrer thinned and treated the trees on his land and the results are visible.
“We’ve been cleaning the property long before the pine beetle began to really get out of control around us. And so we’ve been fortunate to stay ahead of the curve a little bit,” Scherrer said.
That’s exactly what a new Forest Service project will do for nearly 250,000 additional acres of at-risk forest over the next five to seven years.
“We have lots of research that’s actually done here on the Black Hills National Forest. We know that the main habitat for the Mountain Pine Beetle is dense stands. If we can thin the dense stands, open them up a little bit, you’re reducing the habitat for Mountain Pine Beetle,” Van Alstyne said.
The Mountain Pine Beetle Response Project will speed up the process to treat critical areas of forest to help get ahead of the rapidly moving insects.
“It allows us the flexibility to look at the priority areas. Field reviews would be done, but instead of them taking years of review, it would be reduced to days or months,” Van Alstyne said.
The project will create a buffer zone in high-risk areas through commercial and non-commercial logging, cut and chunk, and chemically treating legacy trees around homes.
“The emphasis needs to be on the wildland urban interface and those areas of the Hills that are not yet lost. Don’t waste our time in the Hill City area because we can’t do anything. It’s over,” Scherrer said.
“We’re focusing our treatments to the wildland urban interface of Spearfish Canyon, looking at the fire hazard and reducing the Mountain Pine Beetle,” Van Alstyne said.
The Forest Supervisor made the decision to implement the plan after considering feedback from the public, area tribes and the National Forest Advisory Board. NFAB is made up of 16 different people that come from backgrounds including both logging and conservationism.
“They were committed, they’re knowledgeable and what came from that recommendation was a recommendation that was good enough to help form that final strategy. That final plan that was approved by Supervisor Bobzien,” Scherrer said.
The project will work in conjunction with state and local efforts. But private property owners also are encouraged to treat their lands.
“The governor has provided us with financial support. The counties are providing us with financial support. It’s up to us as landowners to do our job to cooperate with them to turn our land into something healthy,” Scherrer said.
Because tourism is the second largest industry in South Dakota, the benefits of a healthy Black Hills National Forest will extend across the whole state.
According to Forest Service estimates, the Pine Beetle has infested nearly 42 million acres in the country.