Mar 27 2013

Argus Leader: Thune, Noem to USDA: Stop buying land, fight pine beetle

Researchers figure out bug's DNA in forest battle

WASHINGTON — Sen. John Thune and Rep. Kristi Noem announced legislation Wednesday that would help fight the mountain pine beetle but also temporarily stop government acquisition of forest land.

The proposal from the two South Dakota Republicans would ban the U.S. Agriculture Department from buying new forest land for the next five years. Instead, it would require that money to go toward thinning and salvage activities to improve the health of forests already owned by the federal government.

Noem said it’s not right that the federal government continues to buy land while current federal lands are being devastated by the mountain pine beetle. “We cannot continue to spend taxpayer dollars on land acquisition when we are not adequately fighting the pine beetle epidemic we are currently facing,” the congresswoman said.

The USDA spends about $50 million annually to acquire forest land. During the government’s 2013 fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, the department requested $57.9 million.

The legislation also would quicken the environmental review process that must take place before an area of forest land can be treated — a delay that allows insects such as the beetle to spread to new trees. Currently, it can take up to two years for land to be treated after it is identified by the USDA’s Forest Service.

News of Thune’s and Noem’s bill comes on the heels of what could be a significant development in the battle against the pine beetle that has infested numerous North American forests, including the Black Hills National Forest.

Researchers this week at the University of British Columbia and Canada’s Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre said they sequenced the mountain pine beetle’s genome. They were optimistic the information gleaned from the data will help in managing the epidemic.

As the mountain pine beetle has spread, scientists have been looking for any advantages they can find to fight it.

In a study published in the journal Genome Biology, scientists said they isolated genes that help detoxify defense compounds found under the bark of the tree — where the beetles live. They also found genes that degrade plant cell walls, which allow the beetles to get nutrients from the tree.

“We know a lot about what the beetles do,” said Christopher Keeling, a research associate at the Michael Smith Laboratories. “But without the genome, we don’t know exactly how they do it. Sequencing the mountain pine beetle genome provides new information that can be used to help manage the epidemic in the future.”

The Black Hills National Forest covers more than 1.2 million acres in South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming. During the past 15 years, the mountain pine beetle problem has worsened, spreading across more than 400,000 acres of land that is home to millions of trees.

The mountain pine beetle, about the size of a grain of rice, usually inhabits old or weakened pine trees, killing them off and spurring the development of new growth in the forest. But in recent years, a large beetle population and a significant amount of mature pine trees in the forest has fostered the spread of the insect.

Thune praised the Forest Service’s prior work to manage the pine beetle in the Black Hills, but he said more needs to be done to remove red tape and ensure large landscape restoration projects are a higher priority and come with the funding they need.

“The health of our federally owned forest land is deteriorating at an alarming rate,” Thune said. “It only makes sense to redirect acquisition funding to forest management; the Forest Service needs to more effectively manage the land it currently owns.”

Thune and Noem each said they would try to get their legislation included in the farm bill later this year.


To read more:

Do you want to sign up for my E-Newsletter?