South Dakota Initiative Sets Its Sights on Mountain Pine Beetle

E-newsletter Issue #101 | September 27, 2012

There are 1.3 million acres of forest in the Black Hills of South Dakota. A small, black insect—the mountain pine beetle—has devastated 400,000 of those acres and there’s no end in sight.

“The current epidemic, we say, started about 1996; it’s continued through this year with no signs of collapse,” said Ray Sowers, South Dakota’s state forester. “It’s causing quite a bit of concern among public and natural resource managers. If this epidemic keeps going the way it is, there’s going to be a major change in the forest as we know it in the Black Hills.”

Those major changes will go far beyond just the look of the forest, Sowers said. Tourism and the lumber industry, which provide a significant economic boost to the area, will be devastated. The dead trees left behind by the beetles also will provide the perfect kindling for major fires.

Sowers said most states affected by the beetle—which burrow under the bark of pine trees to lay their eggs—have concentrated on replanting to compensate for the trees killed by the insect. South Dakota is waging a war on the beetle with its Black Hills Forest Initiative, a 2012 Midwest winner of The Council of State Governments Innovations Award.

The initiative began in August 2011 with an announcement by Gov. Dennis Daugaard. It includes an aggressive treatment program for trees on state-owned land, as well as $4 million in funding over three years to help private landowners treat their forests with measures that have been proved effective in killing the beetles.

“We’ve established a cost-share program for private landowners,” Sowers said. “If a private landowner treats beetle-infested trees, the state will reimburse him up to 50 percent of his cost. It is quite expensive to suppress beetles.”

Jim Scherrer, a founding member of the Black Hills National Forest Advisory Board, has taken advantage of the program to help treat his land. He owns 166 acres of woodland, which is surrounded by 5,000 acres of devastated woodland owned by the federal government.

“The supervisor of the forest service has coined an expression for us,” Scherrer said. “He says, ‘You guys are the snow cone in the oven.’ Approximately 25 percent of the 5,000 acres around us have been significantly impacted. Over the next three years, virtually all of the ponderosa pine will be dead. The devastation is just sad.”

Scherrer said the initiative is crucial to trying to save the forests of South Dakota.

“I’m a little bit of an exception to the rule,” he said. “I’m going to do this (treat his trees) regardless. But the government really did respond on a very timely manner to the outcry of the folks in western South Dakota saying, ‘Listen, we can’t afford to do all this work on our own property.’

“It’s very costly. Not everyone can afford to do that. I understand that. But if you don’t do it, you ain’t going to win the battle. It’s that simple.”

Sowers said mountain pine beetles generally attack older trees that are at least 12 inches in diameter. If South Dakota and other Western states can’t come to grips with this insect, he said, it will have some very long-lasting effects.

“With an epidemic that kills off all the old trees, it causes abrupt changes in the ecosystem and creates a short- and long-term impact economically,” Sowers said. “It hurts the tourism industry. They don’t like seeing a lot of dead trees.

“More detrimental is the impact of this to the timber industries that utilize the wood that normally comes off the Black Hills. That wood may not be available and may not be available like we currently have for the next 60 to 120 years. You can see the economic impact to our wood industry is likely to be severe.”

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