Pine Beetle Battle Plans

Posted: February 1, 2012

Source: Black Hills Pioneer

Montana Pine beetle killed forest

NORTHERN HILLS — The fight against the mountain pine beetles isn’t hopeless, but we do have a steep hill to climb and not much time to reach the top, forest industry officials say.

To get there, they say it’s time to decide what’s most important to us and can still be saved, then implement a coordinated, forest-wide strategy to achieve prioritized goals for protecting the Black Hills from the beetles.

“We need to quit talking about it. We need to start preaching a strategy,” said Dan Buehler, resource manager with the Neiman Timber Company. “We’d like to have a coordinated effort … where everything is complementing each other. That’s what I feel is lacking overall.”

That, and someone to lead the charge in formulating and implementing that strategy.

Who that leader should be should be is debatable. Many lean toward the Forest Service, as it is the primary landholder in the Black Hills. But the Forest Service has pushed for local control in jurisdictions that have differing priorities.

Resources for fighting the pine beetle aren’t exactly scant, but they are scattered across those jurisdictions. The county, state, Forest Service, private landowners, business owners and the timber industry are all actively involved in battling the beetle, but aren’t necessarily coordinating with each other across the board.

“(Coordination) is critical, but whether it’s possible or not is always the question,” Lawrence County Commission Chairman Daryl Johnson said. “I think on a lot of occasions, you don’t see that — you see everybody going their own direction.”

Forest Supervisor Craig Bobzien said that the wide variety of stakeholders bring a wide variety of priorities to the table, so one universal strategy may not be possible.

“We could have a strategy where we would have a high agreement on our aspirations and goals … but when we have so many public values and resources at risk based on where people reside in the Black Hills, I believe that we would only be able to stay at that higher (aspiration) level,” Bobzien said.

The Forest Service’s Western Bark Beetle Strategy reflects that higher level. The strategy prioritizes areas on the forest based on public safety, forest recovery and long-term forest resiliency. As it’s a nationwide strategy, it doesn’t identify any specific areas on the Black Hills National Forest, but it can be applied to high-risk areas as the beetles spread.

But Buehler and forester Bill Coburn are advocating that a single, unified strategy is possible, and in fact crucial to our success.

Buehler recently presented to the Lawrence County Commission a preliminary strategy for treating the entire forest. The strategy segments the forest into three different zones — resiliency, restraining and recovery — for treatment, and sequentially numbers them for priority.

The resiliency zone is given the highest priority and includes the Bear Lodge Mountains and outer edges of the Hills north of Newcastle, Wyo., to Rapid City. The strategy identifies those areas as being under imminent threat or already showing small pockets of beetles that could easily and quickly expand. Treatment in the resiliency zone would be mostly with hand crews and chainsaws, with the target of treating at least 80 percent of identified priority sites infested with surviving beetles.

The zone forms a sort of horseshoe around the restraining zone, where Buehler said the timber industry would focus most of its efforts. The zone has significantly higher populations of beetles and would be thinned with heavy logging equipment by the timber industry, again aiming for a target of 80 percent treatment in priority stands.

The recovery zone sits at the core of the Hills, stretching south from Cheyenne Crossing to just north of Custer. Beetles in that area are too populous to be effectively controlled, Buehler said, so the majority of work there would be sanitation of dead areas for fire mitigation and public safety.

Buehler said the Bear Lodge Mountains are the primary focus of the strategy, because it’s the greenest forest that remains in the Black Hills, and needs to be protected before infestation explodes.

Spearfish Mountain and Spearfish Canyon are also within the resiliency zone, but the industry is unable to treat them because the Forest Service hasn’t approved a timber sale there yet — though Spearfish Mountain is part of a timber sale on the radar for August 2012.
Buehler and Coburn said it’s also the kind of strategy the Black Hills needs, but hasn’t yet seen.Neiman’s strategy borrows heavily from the principles of the Alberta Plan, practiced by Canada’s Alberta Sustainable Resource Development.

“It’s going to come with some sacrifices,” Buehler said. “When you look at the scope of this problem, (the Neiman strategy) needs to be fine-tuned and it needs to be prioritized, but it is in a sense creating winners and losers.”

Complaints will undoubtedly arise among those who lose, Buehler added, but having a strategy to critique is better than not having one at all.

“We haven’t seen anyone come out with anything else in terms of a strategy,” Buehler said. “We haven’t had any feedback from the different organizations on the strategy that we put together. (We wrote this) to have further discussions. It’s not perfect, it may not work; we don’t know. But nobody’s coming forward with trying something new.”

Maybe the most critical part of the strategy is that wherever treatments are applied, they need to reach the 80 percent treatment threshold.

“If we’re not getting 80 percent (of infested trees), we’re wasting our time,” Buehler said.

Eighty percent is the amount championed in the Alberta Plan, which Coburn said is backed by science and has been demonstrably successful in the Canadian forests.

Successfully reaching that point is going to take everything we have, Buehler said — volunteers with chainsaws cutting incipient beetle-hit trees; the industry taking large-scale treatments; even the prescribed burning of slash piles.

And someone needs to be at the helm, making sure things get done right.

Coburn pulled no punches with who should lead. Working with 2009 infestation figures — 2010 aerial photos are still being processed by the Forest Service, months after they were taken — Coburn delineated more than 5,000 small areas of infestation in Lawrence County alone. And most of them were on Forest Service land.

“It should be the Forest Service, because primarily every one of them is on Forest Service Lands,” Coburn said. “(But) there’s no strategy out there from the Forest Service, that I can determine, that we’re going to take care of those.”

In a lot of ways, the timber industry is unable to lead, because it can’t manage the forest without permission from the Forest Service.

Across the forest, others have taken a leadership role in smaller areas.

“I think there already is a clear leader in Lawrence County, and that’s the county,” Johnson said. “We’ve been trying to take a leadership role with it for several years now, and we’re doing that through our marking efforts and coordinating with the other agencies. We’re working on some mutual agreements with the Forest Service which we think will be very beneficial in the effort to control the pine beetle.”

The state has also been proactive with the beetle fight this year, establishing a treatment program funded by $3 million in state funds over the next three years, a proposal by Gov. Dennis Daugaard for $6 million more in beetle-battle funds for the Wildland Fire Suppression Division in fiscal 2013, and an informational website to keep citizens informed and up-to-date on the fight.

“Everybody’s doing something,” Coburn said. “I just don’t see the urgency from the Forest Service toward this issue that you see from the counties and the industry … and the state.”

In general terms, Bobzien said the Forest Service can adhere to an overarching strategy, but it can’t infringe on local jurisdictions by tossing their lands out of treatment zones through prioritization — though he added that areas within the Forest Service’s jurisdiction should be and are prioritized to make treatments as effective as possible.

Responsibility for treating the forest is “shared where we have common interests, and dispersed where there are unique interests,” he said.

Spearfish Canyon is an area of unique interest. The Forest Service has said that the walls of the Canyon are too steep to treat with ground-based logging equipment, and helicopter logging isn’t cost-effective when money could be used to cover more ground in more accessible areas. Tom Shaffer, general manager of Neiman’s, agreed.

“I think they’d spend a boatload of money for getting nothing out of it,” Shaffer said.

But the Save Spearfish Canyon Coalition is ready to spend thousands of dollars to protect the corridor from pine beetles, in hopes of preserving its scenic beauty and keeping the folks who live there safe from wildfires and dead, falling trees.

Coordination across organizations is a complicated process, which adds to the difficulty of formulating an effective, universal strategy — especially when agencies can’t agree whether we even need one.

With the beetles continuing to spread exponentially, though — officials say they infested another 67,000 acres of forest this year, up from 44,000 acres in 2010 — the clock is ticking in the battle with the beetle, and how we move forward will be critical in determining our success against them.