Beating the beetle

Farm Forum

My family and I try our best to see the Great Faces nearly every summer. It’s one of our favorite summer vacation spots – and one many South Dakotans try not to miss. If you have visited the Black Hills in the last few years, however, you’ve probably noticed a changing landscape; sadly, a dying landscape.

Over the course of the last two decades, Mountain Pine Beetles have quickly infested the Black Hills National Forest. About one-third of the forest is currently infected, turning some areas into a tinderbox and significantly increasing wildfire potential in the area. Not only is this a significant safety risk, but it jeopardizes our state’s tourism and forestry industries – and the paychecks of the hundreds of South Dakotans employed in these industries.

This week, I signed onto legislation that offers greater protections for prevention efforts. After all, the best way to fight a wildfire is to prevent it altogether. The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act simply changes the way we budget for fighting wildfires. Currently, any additional funding needed to fight emergency wildfires is pulled from prevention programs, including some that are important to pine beetle efforts in the Black Hills. More specifically, we prioritize timber harvest, grazing management and other activities in this bill by protecting the funding that goes to these important programs.

This is the next in a series of steps we’ve taken to beat the beetle in recent years.

In November 2013, I brought U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell to view the damage first hand. He came away from that meeting recognizing that we have the tools to combat the pine beetle, but we need to be able to apply them on a larger scale. That takes reforms on the federal level.

I included some of those reforms in the 2014 Farm Bill. More specifically, we streamlined environmental red tape, helped get boots on the ground faster, and allowed the Forest Service to work on a larger scale in many cases. So far, nearly one million acres of the Black Hills National Forest has benefited from these provisions.

Through other efforts, we were also able to secure more than $3 million in federal funds over the last two years to help support the fight.

These efforts in South Dakota are working, but the federal government now must get out of the way. Last month, Chief Tidwell honored the Black Hills National Forest with the Chief’s Award for “Leading in the Business Environment” for their work on beating the beetle. Once again, South Dakota’s efforts are highlighted as an example for the nation.

We are fortunate to have so many dedicated foresters working in the Black Hills today and I am very grateful for their efforts. I am also committed to being their partner in Congress because decades from now, I want our kids to be able to drive to the Black Hills with their families and see the vibrant forest we grew up seeing.

It’s possible. But first, we’re going to have to beat the beetle.