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Education is the key in funding pine beetle fight

By Sandy Geffre Black Hills Pioneer | Posted: Tuesday, February 7, 2012

SPEARFISH— Spearfish Canyon Foundation president Susan Johnson got the opportunity to see firsthand on Friday how the seed money donated by the Foundation toward the mountain pine beetle project is helping in the fight.

Johnson was among a group of dignitaries and local business people who toured a section of the Spearfish Mountain project to view a cutting area during a media day event organized by the Lawrence County Commission. The event was held to help educate the public on the scope of the mountain pine beetle destruction and the importance of ongoing funding to continue the fight.

Johnson, who lives at the mouth of Spearfish Canyon and drives past beetle-infested areas every day, said she was shocked to see the devastation up close.

“It's one thing to read about the devastation going on in the forest and to hear that there are 800,000 ponderosa pines already infested, but it's another thing to see it up close,” she said. “You see it at a distance, but when you see those bore holes close up, and the trees are just covered with them, it's shocking.”

Johnson said she was amazed as she watched a cutting crew fell, de-limb and chunk a half-dozen green-hit trees in a matter of minutes. She said she was also glad to learn their work since the first of the year has already made a big impact in slowing the spread of the pine beetle.

The Spearfish Canyon Foundation made an initial donation of $135,000 to the Lawrence County Commission to lead the fundraising campaign that helped bring almost $300,000 in private donations to help fight the battle.

Johnson said watching the cutting crew in action and standing in the midst of their recent work affirmed the Foundation's donation toward the pine beetle fight is money well spent. It also keeps with the Foundation's mission “to preserve Spearfish Canyon as a lasting legacy by promoting natural and cultural history, appreciation of the environment, responsible public access and funding to enhance the infrastructure and ecology,” she said.

“We were watching our money going directly from the bank to the chainsaw. That's what I felt the best about,” said Johnson.

Johnson said she listened to forester Bill Coburn warn others of the impending pine beetle devastation for years while nothing was done.

“Unfortunately, now that we can see the destruction, it's too late,” she said.

With continued project funding, however, the county has a chance to save what remains of the beautiful Black Hills, she said.

Johnson agrees with Coburn's assessment that everyone who lives in the Black Hills, visits the Black Hills or knows someone who does, is a stakeholder and needs to take ownership and contribute to the pine beetle effort.

It is the only way to slow the spread of the mountain pine beetle, said Coburn.

“We have to figure out how to do this long-term,” Coburn said on Friday. “Everybody has to contribute.”

Coburn said an estimated 20,000 acres of the Black Hills were infested from the 2010 mountain pine beetle flight, and emphasized the rate at which the epidemic continues to grow.

Coburn calculated that 20,000 acres represents 1.5 million infested trees, based on an estimated 75 green-hit trees per acre. The “blowup” of beetle-infested trees multiplies that number three-fold in just one year, he said.

“That means 4.5 million trees were infested in the 2011 flight,” said Coburn.

Subtracting an estimated 900,000 green-hit trees cut and eliminated by local sawmills, Lawrence County's current pine beetle project, US Forest Service timber sales and other entities, the number of beetle-infested trees that still remain is staggering.

“There are still 3.6 million trees left after we get in there and cut the trees from last year's flight of beetles,” Coburn said.

As CEO of Black Hills Central Reservations, an organization that brings hundreds of thousands of visitors to the area by booking packages and vacations in the Black Hills, Johnson's concern for keeping the Black Hills National Forest beautiful is two-fold.

She said visitors who drive through the Black Hills are saddened at the sight of brown trees. “When you drive around Mount Rushmore and see the rusted trees, it's shocking,” said Johnson.

She said the Black Hills can't afford the devastation that has occurred in Colorado. Johnson said it's heartbreaking to see the pine beetle devastation that has killed millions of acres of trees so close by.

“They have lost their battle,” she said. “We all need to do whatever we can so we don't lose this battle.”

Johnson said she and other foundation board members support the pine beetle project 100 percent and encourage others to get on board before it's too late.

“If we can put a halt on this along the Spearfish Canyon National Scenic Byway, it's as important of an investment as we can make,” she said.

Johnson noted the photos on the foundation's website, www.spearfishcanyon.com that show the pine beetle destruction on Custer Peak, and in comparison, a mostly green Spearfish Mountain with only a handful of brown patches.

While it's too late to save the brown trees on Spearfish Mountain, Johnson said cutting the more than 4,000 green-hit beetle infested trees already will go a long way toward preventing the spread of dead trees.

A 25-man reconnaissance crew has identified and marked nearly 100,000 green-hit trees throughout Lawrence County. An estimated 35,000 acres still remain to be marked.

Since Jan. 15, crews have cut more than 4,000 trees in the Spearfish Mountain Project area to allow the trees to dry out and kill the beetles inside before they start flying again this summer.

Former Lawrence County commissioners George Opitz and Jim Seward were among those who attended Friday's event. They praised the county for reaching an agreement with the Forest Service, and the progress that has already been made to slow the pine beetle destruction.

“I'm real glad to see that Lawrence County is taking the initiative to save what they can,” said Seward. “I'm pretty proud of that commission for what they're doing.”

Work on Spearfish Mountain was completed on Monday. Crews will begin work in Spearfish Canyon on Tuesday.