Pine beetle plan moves ahead

By Sarah Pridgeon

Following completion of its Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the Mountain Pine Beetle Response Project, the Black Hills National Forest Service has proposed action that integrates comments received from the public during the review process. The preferred alternative to prevent the spread of the beetle infestation is to focus on treating forest land in advance of the beetles, addressing concerns about safety and access on roadways.

“This is a collaborative, large scale environmental project that uses new approaches to address the mountain pine beetle epidemic, says Craig Bobzien, Black Hills National Forest Supervisor. “It’s our most widespread public concern. This project identifies the areas we anticipate mountain pine beetles to occur, then allows us to act quickly using a variety of tools.”

Over the last 15 years, the mountain pine beetle has infested more than 400,000 acres of the 1.2 million-acre Black Hills National Forest and continues to expand. Recent projects have treated a quarter of the affected land, but new means are required to keep the forests resilient.

The Mountain Pine Beetle Response Project (MPBRP) proposes treating portions of around 242,000 acres of forest at high risk of becoming affected by the beetles. The project will manage the vegetation to reduce the threat to ecosystem components from the existing epidemic and reduce hazardous fuels to minimize the potential of large-scale wildfires.

Three alternatives are proposed; Alternative A suggests no action, while Alternative B is the proposed action and involves integrated pest management techniques with the objective of treating and removing infested trees before beetles can disperse.

Alterntive C, the preferred alternative, responds to comments received during scoping and includes treating in advance of the beetles, treating more areas and addressing safety and access concerns. It includes modifications including reducing new system road construction and focusing treatments in portions of Spearfish Canyon.

During the public comments process, 37 letters and 195 comments were received, none of which, according the public involvement appendix of the FEIS, generated a need for reanalysis of the alternatives. “Public comment on the Draft EIS was rich and varied and reflects, for the most part, respondents’ livelihood, lifestyle and/or position/opinion on issues or concerns,” states the document.

Alternative C was developed in response to these comments and is a more proactive response. It includes all aspects of the proposed action, Alternative B, which suggests cutting and chunking, chipping and other management techniques, insecticide spraying (generally in developed campgrounds, Forest Service facilities and scattered legacy trees,) limited semiochemical use along the ‘leading edge’ of the infestation, helicopter logging and thinning.

A total of 105,400 acres of commercial and 18,600 acres of non-commercial thinning would take place over a five to seven year period according to both alternatives, removing beetle-infested trees to lower infestation and wildfire risks.

Additional elements added to Alternative C include landscape-level thinning in advance of large beetle infestations to reduce stand densities and risk of infestation, also reducing wildfire hazard and creating fuel breaks. Treatments would also take place in Spearfish Canyon and up to 60 miles of new System and 160 miles of temporary road would be constructed.

If Alternative C is decided upon, existing roads will be utilized and new system and temporary roads will be constructed. Reconstruction of existing roads may include improvements, restoration or realignment, while some unauthorized routes may be converted to system roads and then closed following management activities and some system trails may be temporarily converted into roads.

A decision will be made on the project following a 30-day objection period beginning on September 22, during which those who commented in writing at scoping or on the draft Environmental Impact Statement. Objections must be filed in writing to USDA, Forest Service, Region 2 Reviewing Officer, Attn: John Rupe, 740 Simms Street, Golden, Colorado 80401 or in electronic form to [email protected] with the name of the project in the subject line.