Apr 08 2013

Argus Leader: Budget cuts force changes in Black Hills beetle fight

Without more money, war relies on coordination identifying priority areas

WASHINGTON — Officials fighting the spread of the mountain pine beetle are looking for ways to stretch their existing money amid worries that their efforts could be squeezed further as lawmakers in Washington push to reduce government spending.

The Black Hills National Forest covers more than 1.2 million acres in South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming. During the past 16 years, the mountain pine beetle has spread across more than 416,000 of those acres, home to millions of trees. Forest-thinning efforts have failed to keep pace with the movement of the beetle.

As the insect spreads and dollars become more scarce, the U.S. Forest Service, states, counties, private land owners, conservation groups and other organizations have worked more closely to coordinate their approach and boost the efficiency of eradication efforts.

For example, officials at the Black Hills National Forest are putting more attention on identifying priority areas with states and counties to allow them to focus on the same area and increase the effectiveness of their plan. In addition, the importance of research from entomologists has played a vital role in understanding what the pest does.

And in December, a larger block of beetle-infested forest land totaling almost 250,000 acres finished an environmental review process that must take place before treatment projects such as thinning can occur. This meant that instead of the Forest Service devoting money for a series of smaller environmental reviews, it proceeded with a larger one that saved money and gave the agency greater flexibility to respond to changing conditions.

Johnson: Cuts hamper efforts

“There’s no doubt that the rush to cut federal spending has hurt our ability to boost funding for the Black Hills at a time when it’s badly needed,” said Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D. Still, he said, “the partnerships among federal, state and local governments, along with private industry, have helped address this monumental challenge.”

That coordination has taken on added meaning with all of South Dakota in moderate to exceptional drought, making it even more crucial to get ahead of the movement of the beetle as much as possible, according to those involved in combating the pest. As the beetles kill more trees, the dead wood acts as kindling that can quickly ignite and spread a fire in dry conditions.

The latest beetle epidemic, the fourth outbreak of the insect in the forest during the past 100 years, is considered to be the longest and most severe.

Beetle has spread with mature pines

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 number of mature pine trees in the forest have fostered the spread of the insect.

“Right now, the beetle continues to probably outpace what we can do on the thinning,” said Dennis Jaeger, acting forest supervisor in the Black Hills National Forest. “We’re doing the best we can and working with others to do more.”

Jaeger said while he would welcome more money, he’s not expecting the White House or congressional lawmakers to increase his budget in light of calls to keep cutting budgets and reduce government spending.

“Do we think we could do more with (additional) funding? Sure, but then you look at reality,” Jaeger said.

The Obama administration is scheduled to release its budget proposal for the government’s 2014 fiscal year Wednesday.

Tom Tidwell, chief of the U.S. Forest Service, said mandatory spending cuts imposed by Congress and the White House will force the agency to hire about 500 fewer firefighters than the 10,500 it usually employs across the U.S.. “There is going to be some impacts, but we’ll do everything we can to minimize them,” he told a House Agriculture subcommittee in March.

Ben Wudtke, forest programs manager with the Black Hills Forest Resource Association, said it’s too early to say what effect the budget cuts will have on beetle management. Members of the Rapid City, South Dakota-based nonprofit group include forest products companies and area residents.

“It’s a great concern of ours because there is a lot of work to be done out here, and the Forest Service needs the support to get the work done,” Wudtke said. “We’re making progress, but the fight is certainly not over.”

Rep. Kristi Noem, along with fellow South Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune, have proposed legislation that 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 such as the Black Hills already owned by the federal government.

Noem said the failure of Congress to adequately fund a problem such as the beetle outbreak has forced local entities to step up.

“People recognize that we’re not going to wait around for the federal government to do the right thing,” Noem said. A failure to adequately thin the forests and fight the beetle, she said, has left South Dakota vulnerable as the fire season begins.

“We’re in a worse position because we haven’t done that over the years,” Noem said.


To read more: http://www.argusleader.com/article/20130408/NEWS/304080016/Budget-cuts-force-changes-Black-Hills-beetle-fight

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