by Dave Heck, Spearfish, South Dakota
During the summer of 2011, Spearfish Canyon residents in Lawrence County, South Dakota noticed the tell-tale signs of ever increasing ponderosa pine mortality within the viewshed of the Canyon. Spearfish Canyon is a National Scenic Byway nestled within the confines of the Black Hills National Forest. At this time representatives from the Spearfish Canyon Homeowners’ Association, one of many homeowners associations in Lawrence County, contacted the county’s Invasive Species Management Department inquiring whether the department was willing to add leverage to conversations with the U.S. Forest Service concerning mountain pine beetle treatments in Spearfish Canyon.
The Black Hills National Forest consists of approximately 1.2 million acres in western South Dakota and eastern Wyoming. Within its boundaries, the forest contains an additional 300,000 acres of non-Forest Service land. The majority of the lands adjoining the Black Hills National Forest are non-federal and privately owned. This wildland-urban interface includes private subdivisions, ranches, and land pending development.1
The Black Hills National Forest has experienced an exponential growth in mountain pine beetle infestation since the late 1990s.2 The infestation turned out to be forest wide and continues to the present.3 The native mountain pine beetle is killing ponderosa and other pines throughout the West. The adult beetle and its larvae tunnel beneath the bark, cutting off the flow of nutrients. Additionally, the adults carry a blue stain fungus, which clogs the trees’ pores, further disrupting the flow of water and nutrients. The trees die as their needles yellow and then turn brown.
The extreme fuel loads caused by insect-related tree mortality pose a significant threat to property and life. Firefighting in the wildland-urban interface is costly, difficult, and consumes significant firefighting resources. Since 2000, the area has experienced numerous fires burning over 14 percent of the Black Hills National Forest with varying intensity and severity. This period of time mirrors the time during which the beetle infestation has been occurring in the forest.4
The beetle infestation grew, largely unabated, throughout the late 1990s and 2000s. While the Forest Service acknowledged the severity of the problem, circa 2006, the agency was slow to respond to the problem. The Spearfish Canyon Homeowners’ Association recognized not only the devastating impact of mountain pine beetle on tree mortality, but also the threat posed by catastrophic wildfire. With these concerns in mind, the county’s Invasive Species Management Department approached the Forest Service to discuss what actions the agency might be encouraged to undertake to mitigate the multi-pronged threat posed by the beetles.
Early on it was recognized that the best approach to reducing losses to the mountain pine beetle in the long-term is forest management to reduce stocking densities. Decreases in stocking density will lower the probability that beetle outbreaks will be initiated.4 With this directive in mind, the Forest Service acquiesced to facilitate beetle treatments.
Initially, the Forest Service was cautious to respond. Even so, provision was made to allow private landowners, with property abutting the forest, to enter onto adjacent forest lands and remove infested trees to a limited extent. All such treatments were to be made at the landowner’s sole expense. From this initial allowance for limited treatments, discussions between the Forest Service and county continued. Over the following months, a more aggressive plan was discussed. It was recognized that a more ambitious approach was required to effectively stem the tide of the beetle outbreak - a method aimed at reducing the stocking levels density of the beetles.
The plan that emerged was a first-of-its-kind cooperative agreement between the Forest Service and Lawrence County. Pursuant to a Memorandum of Understanding, the Forest Service authorized the county, through its Invasive Species Department, to make mountain pine beetle treatments over a wide area of the forest - not limited to Spearfish Canyon. The caveat to the agreement was that the county was responsible for funding the project. The goal of the project from the county’s perspective was not to eradicate the beetles, but merely one of containment until the population subsides naturally.
Pursuant to the agreement, no mechanized treatments were allowed and no timber product could be removed from the forest to help offset costs. This meant that the only allowable method for tree cutting was by cutters with chainsaws. This type of work is quite labor intensive with many infected areas comprised of steep terrain and located in remote areas. Because the work was to be self-funded, it was necessary to identify priority areas to ensure that treatments were made in areas calculated to achieve the best result. Also, safety was a paramount concern.
Accordingly, a county led working group was formed to prioritize treatment areas. Criteria were established based upon several considerations that included fire risk, likelihood of future infestation, current level of infestation, viewshed, flood risk and potential for soil disturbance and closed versus open canopy. Aerial flight datum showing past years’ tree mortality was also analyzed. These elements were digitized and overlaid using GIS layers that included wildland urban interface intervals of one-quarter mile, one-half mile and one mile. The result was a layer quantifying 38,000 acres for beetle treatments. This acreage far surpassed available funds and practicality for immediate treatment. The first year’s cost for treatments was estimated to be around $1 million.
Before any plan might be implemented, it was necessary to secure adequate funding. The county had approximately $600,000 that could be committed to the project. Recognizing the unprecedented opportunity afforded by the Forest Service, local partners stepped in to fill the funding gap. The Spearfish Canyon Trust committed $450,000 to fund work in Spearfish Canyon. Other partners came forward with funds, to include Neiman Forest Products, the cities of Spearfish and Deadwood, as well as individual donations. One group produced cookbooks for sale with the proceeds directed to fund the treatments. The groundswell of support for the project was impressive and clearly highlighted the threat posed to the local economy and public safety.
With funding secured, a goal was set to treat 15,000 acres in Lawrence County with treatments scheduled to start in the winter months of early 2012. The first step to implementing actual treatments was infested tree identification and marking. Again, the burden and expense was the county’s responsibility. Seasonal workers were hired to undertake the tree identification and marking. Later, more seasonal workers were added with the skills to cut safely and chunk the marked trees. The tree markers were paid hourly while the tree cutters were paid on a per tree basis with payment criteria, based upon the size of the tree. In order to maintain an accurate count of trees treated to include location, and to insure accountability for payments, painstaking efforts were made to individually mark each tree treated with a GPS point. Over 100 employees were required to mark, cut and administer the project. The logistics of this endeavor were extremely challenging.
The goal of the first year was to have all treatments completed by April 1, 2012. A sufficient amount of time is required for the cut chunks of the trees to dry out in order to induce beetle mortality. In three months, 49,000 trees were treated. The estimated expansion ratio for beetle infestation is 4:1. Accordingly, through the efforts that first treatment cycle, approximately 200,000 trees were protected.
Coinciding with the main treatment program on the Forest Service lands, the county established a program for private landowners whereby the county purchased four portable sprayers for use by landowners rent-free. As part of this program, the county negotiated a deal with a local distributor for landowners to purchase insecticide at a reduced cost. When applied properly, the insecticide protects trees from beetles for a year or more. Many landowners took advantage of this program to protect specimen trees on their property.
The county also sought the expertise of Dr. John Bordon from British Columbia, Canada, who is considered to be a leading expert in the study of mountain pine beetle behavior. Dr. Borden has a wealth of knowledge gained from the study of mountain pine beetle behavior during a distinguished academic career including knowledge gained from Canada’s own recent mountain pine beetle epidemic. Dr. Borden worked with county staff to design strategies to move and congregate beetles into treatment areas.
Another phase of the overall strategy included a separate agreement between the Forest Service and the county allowing county-trained employees to mark beetle infested trees within the boundaries of planned commercial timber sales. This agreement facilitated expedited timber cutting in sale areas that otherwise would have languished untreated. The added benefit of this program was that cut timber was removed from the forest and taken to the sawmill where it could be marketed commercially. This remains the preferred method of treatment as it saves the county the high cost of tree cutting and chunking while at the same time the logs are used for beneficial purposes as opposed to being left on the forest floor.
Following the initial treatments in 2012, subsequent treatments were made in the fall of 2012/winter 2013 and again in early 2014. Of note, during the legislative session of 2013, the South Dakota Legislature earmarked up to $2 million to five South Dakota counties for mountain pine beetle treatments. Of that total, Lawrence County was allocated $955,000 (50 percent county match required). This allocation eased continued funding concerns greatly. Likewise, in 2014, the South Dakota Legislature again appropriated funds for mountain pine beetle treatments with the county to receive its $1,020,000 (50 percent county match required).
The fourth round of mountain pine beetle treatments began in the fall of 2014. The results of the efforts to date have been positive. The goal of containment appears to be working with fewer areas experiencing new infestations. This approach can work elsewhere in the region.
Dave Heck has been the Lawrence County Invasive Species Supervisor for 14 years.
- Declaration of Raymond Sowers, Biodiversity v. Jiron, et al, Civil Action No. 99-cv-02173-REB-MJW, District Court for the District of Colorado
- Biodiversity Associates, 357 F.3d at 1159.
- Biodiversity v. Jiron, et al.
- Kurt Allen and Blaine Cook, Black Hills National Forest, September 20, 2003.
Published in the December 2014/January 2015 Issue