U.S. House candidates focus on pine beetle damage

Beetle kill forest near Harney PeakHILL CITY – The two main candidates in the U.S. House race in South Dakota brought the pine beetle problem into the campaign in different ways on Wednesday.

Republican state Rep. Kristi Noem, R-Castlewood, did it with boots on the ground. She got a first-hand look at the pine beetle epidemic in the Black Hills while pledging to give the timber industry the support it needs to battle the bugs for the future of the forest.

While Noem was out in the woods, U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., was firing off news releases and calling upon federal agencies and the White House to provide emergency assistance and eliminate bureaucracy to help slow the beetle plague.

Noem first looked at the rusty patches of trees killed by bark beetles on a slope above Mitchell Lake northeast of Hill City. Then she traveled west of town with a group from the timber industry to watch a logging crew remove bug-infected trees and thin the forest to slow the spread of the beetles.

Dan Buehler, logging manager of Rushmore Forest Products, told Noem that more than 400,000 acres of the 1.2-million-acre Black Hills National Forest have already been affected by beetles. The timber industry can salvage some of the trees killed by the disease during the 10 months or so between when they were infected and when the wood loses market value. But it lost more lumber than it saved, largely because the limitations of federal resources and delays in the federal system on approving forest treatment, or thinning, work, Buehler said.

Congress and the U.S. Forest Service need to streamline the process for approving timber contracts and provide more funding for programs to improve forest health and fight the beetles, Buehler said.

“We need to invest money now to save this forest,” he said. “You really can’t have any untreated areas, or it’s going to be gone.”

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