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As Black Hills battle with pine beetles, climate change is siding with the bugs

Massive infestation forces cutting of 175,000 trees in hopes of saving the forest.

The evergreen forests of the American West have been turning red, then brown and finally gray on scales that haven’t really been seen before.

A couple of weeks ago I went for a walk in the Black Hills and wandered into a  battlefield in the West’s war against pine beetles — a conflict where the trees are being cut down to save the forest.

It could also be seen as a front line, one among many, in the advance of climate change.

To be sure, beetle infestations are as old as the forest themselves, and their destructive impact has waxed and waned in cycles driven by natural variation in temperature and rainfall and reproductive success.

Since the middle 1990s, however, the evergreen forests of the American West have been turning red, then brown and finally gray on scales that haven’t really been seen before. There seems to be general agreement that a shift to warmer, drier patterns is driving this change, just as it is driving longer, more intense wildfire seasons.

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But for a variety of reasons, including their relative isolation, the Black Hills in general – and Custer State Park in particular – weren’t seriously afflicted until well after infestations had reached the epidemic stage in many other regions in the West.

Now the fight is in full sway and the results are something to behold.

A bit of the West, but closer

For many Minnesotans, certainly for me, the relative nearness of the Black Hills combines with their craggy, mountainside beauty to create a powerful magnetism. They’re like a vagrant piece of the Rockies planted a mere 600 miles from the Twin Cities, practically next door in Western terms.

One long day on the freeway can bring you to the Custer State Park entrance and then on to a network of narrow, low-speed ribbons of blacktop that climb and drop and kink and double back along the ridges running through towering stands of Ponderosa pine, the species that accounts for more than 90 percent of Custer’s trees.

a stand of beetle-killed timber along a scenic byway in the Black Hills
MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
A stand of beetle-killed timber along a scenic byway in the Black Hills.

Right away we noticed lots of fallen trees and heaps of logging slash. At first I guessed it was from a fuels-reduction program – thinning and clearing smaller trees to lower the chances of catastrophic fire. Given the last few years of drought and bad wildfire seasons, I figured prevention would be much on the park managers’ minds.

But at Sylvan Lake a ranger set us straight. Virtually every fallen tree we’d seen in the park, every slash pile, every tree blazed with red paint or blue – resulted from efforts to contain the pine-beetle epidemic, and in particular from a relatively new technique called “chunking.”

As with Dutch elm disease, the best way to contain beetle-borne disease in Ponderosas and other pines is to fell the trees and haul them away while the larvae are still beneath the bark.

But in many parts of Custer the terrain is simply too rough or remote to get the timber out without helicopters. Even where removal is feasible, it’s very expensive, and the park can’t count on commercial sales to help offset the costs.

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Bluestain timber

Fungus carried by the beetles leaves a blue stain in lumber that some people find beautiful but most buyers consider a defect, and loggers won’t pay to harvest timber they can’t sell.

(Our newly remodeled room at the park’s State Game Lodge had a ceiling paneled in bluestain – gorgeous – and I called a handful of Rapid City lumberyards to find some boards for my own workshop. No dice.

(Nobody stocks bluestain, I was told, and only a few small sawmills are processing it for what one vendor called “the boutique market” – even though, he and others said, the U.S. Forest Service is essentially giving away bluestain timber from its Black Hills holdings.)

If you can’t haul the timber out, chunking is the next best method.

It calls for the trunk of a felled Ponderosa to be stripped of its limbs and then cut into lengths of 18 to 24 inches, which are scattered on the ground. This allows for rapid dying of the inner bark tissue and destruction of up to 80 percent of beetle larvae, dramatically slowing their spread.

A hike through a logging zone

To see a post-chunking pine stand from a car window is one thing; to hike through one is something else again. This we found out by hiking around Sylvan Lake, where the trail is often flanked by Ponderosa stumps, and then by going a couple of miles down the road to climb the Cathedral Spires trail.

This trail used to ascend through stand after stand of majestic Ponderosas – and a notable, small stand of limber pine – on the way to a craggy palisade of weathered peaks and a panorama of spectacular views from 6,600 feet.

Now it’s like a walk through a logging site before the timber and slash are cleared.

Everywhere you look, living Ponderosas are far outnumbered by trees that have been toppled, stripped and chunked.

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Survivors stand in groups of a dozen or two or three, and of these, usually, a handful have been marked for the saw with a bright red blaze of paint. Maybe one or two carry a blue blaze marking them as “leave trees” that have been found beetle-free and will stay standing.

We saw but one limber pine; however, I’m told by the park’s resource program manager, Gary Brundige that we must have walked right past them and I’m sure he’s right. I confess I was busily scanning the trail ahead, searching for the end of the beetle treatment zone, eager to round the bend that would lead us into a healthy, high stand of Ponderosas.

But it never happened. It was the same scene all the way to the top, and all the way back down again. And I couldn’t stop thinking of that 90 percent statistic and wondering:  At this rate, how long till the rest of the Black Hills is bare?

Progress but no guarantees

Nobody can predict how the war on pine beetles will go, but when I spoke with Brundige the other day he put some tempering perspective around the scenes we’d toured.

First off, he explained that Sylvan Lake and Cathedral Spires were in a portion of the park where beetle infestations had been earliest and heaviest, and therefore where efforts to contain them had been the most intense and longest-running.

Cutting started in the winter of 2004-2005 – nearly a decade after other parts of the West had begun to experience infestation at alarming levels – and for several years was confined to this zone of about 3,000 acres.

Then, a few years ago, the epidemic that Brundige and others liken to a “slow-moving wildfire” started to spread beyond the Sylvan Lake area. Beetles in big numbers are now found all across the park’s 40,000 wooded acres.

Park managers have responded by seeking to identify and fell every infected tree within the park. Since 2004, that has meant the cutting of almost 175,000 trees.

But more than half of these, about 100,000, came down in the last year – some 18,000 in the Sylvan Lake zone and a majority of the rest, as luck would have it, along the park’s most scenic drives, like the Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road.

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So the activity we saw was heavier than in a more normal year, and Brundige thinks that if current success rates hold for his program of early identification and amputation, this year’s cut may be as small as 40,000 trees.

Depends on the weather

And beyond that? It depends on the weather more than anything else, he said, and on weather patterns that seem to be undergoing a permanent change in the Black Hills as in the rest of the west.

So far, the Black Hills region has not yet begun to show the recent decline in infestations that the U.S. Forest Service has reported for western forests overall in 2010 and 2011 (a decline that’s partly traceable to such massive die-offs of Ponderosas, lodgepole and other pines that beetles are running short of host trees in some regions).

Rainfall at Custer has been less than 70 percent of average in recent years, and has also been arriving later in the season than normal. Low moisture in the spring makes it difficult for Ponderosas to defend against beetles by “spitting them out” in a burst of pitch.

And since those blobs of pitch are often the first and clearest sign of a beetle attack, Custer’s survey crews are finding it harder to spot infections as they occur.

Also, Custer is surrounded by national forest and other wooded land that isn’t being treated as intensively, so the park remains something of an island in a reservoir of continuing beetle infestation.

See it while you can

Having looked back over this piece, I don’t want to leave any misimpression that we regretted our time in Custer and the surrounding region, or would discourage others from going. Quite the contrary.

What we witnessed there was both extraordinary and fascinating, and the Black Hills’ diversity of stunning natural landscapes has hardly been undone by this epic struggle.

But if you’ve been thinking about a Black Hills trip yourself, and like the company of a Ponderosa forest, my advice is to go now before it shrinks much further.