By Rep. Kristi Noem
A few weeks ago I held a Natural Resources subcommittee field hearing in the Black Hills to discuss the devastation caused by the Mountain Pine Beetle, a tiny bug measuring in at less than five millimeters. Over the past 13 years, the pine beetle has decimated nearly one third of the 1.2 million acres of National Forest System land in the Black Hills.
If you live in or near the Black Hills, chances are you’re all too familiar with the pine beetle epidemic. But this problem isn’t just something that should be of concern to those in western South Dakota. In addition to being a large part of our state’s identity and a beautiful and popular place for South Dakota families to vacation, the Black Hills also plays an extremely important part in our state’s economy. For all South Dakotans, putting an end to the pine beetle problem in the Black Hills should be a priority.
During the field hearing, we heard testimony from representatives of the Black Hills National Forest, the State of South Dakota, the tourism and timber industries, and private landowners. Their input was helpful in identifying next steps to deal with the preventable damage caused by the pine beetle. We know that there are effective ways to address the problem: we can use treatments such as thinning, spraying legacy trees or creating buffer zones around infected areas.
However, before any treatment options can be implemented, the Forest Service needs to develop and approve a Forest Management Plan. Unfortunately, the approval process is often slow due to the lengthy requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The process itself can take over a year. At this rate, the pine beetle will always be a few steps ahead of us and the devastation will never be under control.
To speed up the plan approval process, I have asked the U.S. Forest Service Chief and the Chairwoman of the Council on Environmental Quality to use their authority to allow for a streamlined NEPA process. This would give the Black Hills National Forest the ability to treat infected areas faster. I have also requested a meeting with the Chief, the Chairwoman and the acting Deputy Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment as soon as possible in order to convey to them in person the urgency of this problem.
The Black Hills are facing an emergency situation. It is unclear to me why the federal government, which has an obligation to manage and maintain its lands, is failing to treat it as such. I will continue to pursue this fight because the pine beetle epidemic is not just a Black Hills issue – it is a South Dakota issue. The pine beetle epidemic impacts public safety, tourism jobs and our environment. It is critical that we remove the bureaucratic roadblocks that are hindering the Forest Service from adequately doing their job to preserve the Black Hills and other national forest land in the West.
Rep. Kristi Noem is South Dakota’s lone U.S. Representative, elected in November 2010. She serves on the Education and Workforce and Natural Resources Committees.