Senator Jason Frerichs (D-1/Wilmot) got the Senate to advance his watershed management plan yesterday. Senate Bill 2, while significantly watered down, is a positive step toward dealing with drainage and other water quality issues in South Dakota. In its baby-steps form, SB 2 will map nine new "river basin natural resource districts," for South Dakota's major watersheds, then dispatch a task force to work with local governments to create a pilot water management plan for the Vermillion River watershed. Senator Frerichs tells me he likes that step, since the Vermillion River is the only watershed that lies entirely in South Dakota. Starting there will give local lawmakers, water consumers, and conservationists a good framework for applying plans to other districts which will inevitably have cross-border conversations about water quality.

The Senate vote wasn't a slam dunk: SB 2 drew 12 nays from Republicans who either don't like government, cooperation on water issues, or bills by Democrats (although the latter shouldn't play too large in opponents' sentiments, since the prime sponsor in the House is Republican Majority Leader Brian Gosch (R-32/Rapid City).

Technically, Senator Frerichs offered some debate on his bill the day before it came up in the Senate. On Wednesday, during debate on throwing another pot of money at pine beetles in the Black Hills, Senator Frerichs drew the following comparison:

I applaud the efforts of the folks that are dealing with this Mother Nature problem out there, truly management at its finest. In our Ag committee we've had a little discussion about this and I've talked with my friends who represent those areas.

You know, this pine beetle issue is very similar to what we deal with on the eastern side as far as some water issues, especially surface water, and so I just ask the body's support. Even though I'm probably about as far away from this issue as could be anyone else, we're duly elected as 35 senators to represent this state. I think it's a good issue, and I appreciate the efforts for management on a Mother Nature problem [Senator Jason Frerichs, floor debate on SB 152, South Dakota Senate, Pierre, South Dakota, 2015.02.18, timestamp 32:45].

Translation: I'll vote to spend money on you guys' problem, even though pine beetles aren't eating trees in my back yard; how about you guys vote to help solve some water issues that are more prevalent in my bailiwick?

Four Black Hills senators (Haverly, Rampelberg, Solano, and Tieszen) took Frerichs up on that pitch (because you know, water does run through the Black Hills, too!). Three Black Hills senators (Cammack, Ewing, and Jensen) said no while happily taking tax dollars for their beetles.

Also voting no was the senator towards who sees darn near all of that water flow through his back yard, Senator Dan Lederman (R-16/Dakota Dunes). Of course, when all that run-off comes burbling over the dikes at his golf course, Senator Lederman will climb on his McMansion roof and shout for more big government management of his water problems.

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When it comes to climate change, Republicans are like our drunk uncle: he won't admit he has a drinking problem, but he sure likes us to spend our money bailing him out when his drinking wraps his car around a tree and puts him in jail.

Rep. Kristi Noem and Senator John Thune are both pleased that the Farm Bill directs more resources to the Black Hills to fight the pine beetle. But the pine beetle epidemic is brought to us in part by climate change:

Scientists say climate change is to blame: Winters haven’t been cold enough to reduce beetle populations. The average U.S. temperature has increased as much as 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit (1.06 Celsius) since 1895, with most occurring since 1970, according to the National Climate Assessment issued in May by the Obama administration.

The warming let beetles proliferate at higher elevations and latitudes, and resulted in more generations per year in some areas, according to a 2011 Forest Service report [Jennifer Oldham, "Pine Beetles Ravaging Forests Strain Budgets in U.S. West," Bloomberg, 2014.06.02].

Climate change is causing problems the cost South Dakota and Uncle Sam money. Yet Rep. Noem and Senator Thune have both supported legislation that prevent us from addressing or even studying climate change. When President Barack Obama tries to tackle the cause of climate change, Senator Thune cries "Energy tax!"

Listen to the Republicans, and we'll end up with ears full of sand and Hills full of dead trees as we treat the symptoms but ignore the disease of climate change.

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A friend leafs through Pioneer Years in the Black Hills, an edited version of fortune-seeker Richard B. Hughes's diary account of the White invasion of the Black Hills. Hughes had trouble finding gold, but he had no trouble finding a pest that today provokes Republicans to cries for vast government spending:

“On the eighteenth [of May, 1876] we continued down Spearfish Canyon, through a huge ‘deadening’ where the trail was made difficult by the dead trees encumbering the ground and lying in all positions. Many such deadfalls were found in the Hills, giving rise to various surmises as to their cause. Deadwood derived its name from the fact that the stream for a part of its course flowed through such a deadening.”

Hughes added this footnote to the passage: “Later scientific investigation has made it pretty certain that this timber was destroyed by the pine beetle in periodic visits long ago, as within a few years past the timber of the Hills has suffered severely from such a visitation” [Richard B. Hughes, Pioneer Years in the Black Hills, A.H. Clark Company, 1957].

Just think: that little pest gave Deadwood its name. And that little pest is a frequent natural visitor to the Black Hills, a visitor we are now determined to eradicate.

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As usual, Dakota War College burps up a Kristi Noem press release without commentary. Congresswoman Noem celebrates herself in noting the Black Hills National Forest's decision on a big pine beetle response project.

Conspicuously absent from Rep. Noem's press release is mention of the price tag: $70 million. She does brag that her efforts helped secure an additional $2 million, but that only highlights the fact that when it comes to boosting her image, Rep. Noem is perfectly willing to forget budget hawkery and bring home the bacon for South Dakota. Explaining why it's o.k. for a fiscal conservative to advocate spending more money on a government program is awfully complicated, so Noem's handlers simply leave that point out of their press releases and hope we won't notice.

One other minor inconsistency left unaddressed by Rep. Noem: the AP report notes that the BHNF's pine beetle plan bulldozes 50 new miles of road through the forest to protect scenic places like Spearfish Canyon... because we all know how scenic logging roads are.

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Last February, the state authorized Lawrence County to spend its $1.8-million mine severance tax fund on its battle against the mountain pine beetle. The county was already on the verge of using up the half million in private donations and county funds appropriated to thinning the forest. Lawrence County has now used nearly $650,000 from that severance tax fund and this week authorized moving $120,000 from next year's budget to this year's to continue the pine beetle effort. The pine beetle fight is supposed to continue for another five years.

Lawrence County Commissioners have thus burned up the interest from that fund. They don't want to use the principal, but with Governor Dennis Daugaard now backing away from offering additional pine beetle assistance to the county, they may have no choice.

The state's already in for $8 million to fight the pine beetle on state land and offer private landowners help. The delayed Farm Bill would spend another $200 million a year for five years to fight the pine beetle throughout the West.

Hmm... could Governor Daugaard be coming to the conclusion that we won't get a return on investment for any more state funds to chop down millions of trees? Perhaps Governor Daugaard is leaning toward the conclusion of the Defenders of the Black Hills, who say our response to the pine beetle has risen from hysteria, not facts about wildfire danger. We can bulldoze a bunch of new forest roads and clear loads of brush, but will anything short of a reversion of the climate back to really cold winters stop the beetles?

Don't forget: underneath all those trees are a lot of little green saplings. The forest can fix itself; it just won't do it on our time.

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The District 33 Senate race pits Republican Rep. Phil Jensen against Independent Matt McGrath. Both men have brave mustaches. That makes this race a hard choice.

But if neither man can win by a whisker, maybe one can win by telling us what he plans to do in Pierre. Matt McGrath would win that contest. He's just posted a four-point plan that tells us what he will do and what he won't do in Pierre:

  1. Turn pine beetles into motor fuel! Well, not quite. McGrath advocates ten-tupling funding for forest thinning to fight the pine beetle, from $1 million to $10 million a year. What to do with all those felled trees? Turn them into cellulosic ethanol, which McGrath says is likely enough that we should forge private-sector partnerships to build a cellulosic ethanol plant in the Black Hills. (I need to get down to a legislative forum and ask McGrath about this report questioning the viability of cellulosic ethanol.)
  2. Convert school lighting to LED bulbs. Don't let Lora Hubbel hear about this, but McGrath says we scrounge up thousands of dollars for each school in costs savings just by switching to LED lighting.
  3. Promote the Homestake Underground Laboratory. McGrath is fuzzy here. He says the Homestake Lab could turn the Black Hills into the next Silicon Valley, but he doesn't make clear what role the Legislature can take in making such development happen.
  4. "Never Sponsor, or Co-Sponsor, Social Policies." McGrath vows never to dirty his hands with "legislation that furthers a right wing or left wing social agenda." McGrath is referring primarily to his opponent, whose backside he blisters in a page dedicated to Rep. Jensen's anti-Muslim hysteria and advocacy of killing doctors who perform abortions. But I wonder: isn't funding public education part of a social agenda?

McGrath's four-point plan invites debate. But at least he's focused on practical lawmaking, not on the culture war that seems to preoccupy his opponent.

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The U.S. Forest Service released its final Environmental Impact Statement for its Mountain Pine Beetle Response project Thursday. The current decade-plus pine beetle infestation has killed trees on a third of the 1.2 million acres of the Black Hills National Forest. The EIS leads forest supervisor Craig Bobzien to the conclusion that the best course of action is to treat recently infected trees on 248,000 "high risk" acres. "Treatment" is a combination of cutting trees down, applying insecticide to infested areas, and using "semiochemicals," pheromones that either attract or repel bugs.

Spearfish Canyon Forest Service Management Area 4.2, in purple

Spearfish Canyon Forest Service Management Area 4.2, in purple

After taking public comment, the Forest Service made three main modifications to its proposed plan:

  1. More landscape level thinning in advance of beetle infestation;
  2. Add treatments in Spearfish Canyon (Management Area 4.2A);
  3. More forest roads: 60 miles permanent, 160 miles temporary.

Several Spearfish Canyon residents, the Cooper's mountainsnails, would have kept the road graders, loggers, and sprayers out of the canyon. Cooper's mountainsnail is a sensitive species protected by Forest Plan Standard 3013. The Forest Service will thus amend 3013 to exempt the pine beetle project (but not other activities, including your four-wheeler) from that rule.

Below is a big map of the potential treatment areas for the Forest Service's preferred alternative, as well as where those new roads would be cut into the Hills:

Forest Service Pine Beetle Repsonse Alternative C Map Aug 2012

Forest Service Pine Beetle Repsonse Alternative C Map Aug 2012 (click to enlarge)

The individuals and organizations who filed comments on the scoping or Draft EIS now have 30 days to submit objections (see the DEIS public comment here). Then the Forest Service will fire up the graders and chainsaws for a project that will take five to seven years.

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The Governor Dennis Daugaard's "Beat the Beetles" program just won recognition from the Council of State Governments for innovative state policy. One of the major selling points of South Dakota's pine beetle mitigation program as been to reduce the risk of "devastating wildfire." At the federal level, too, Republicans supporting more government response to pine beetles have argued that cutting infested trees is about preventing the Black Hills from burning down. (I'd link to the Dakota War College article on this topic, but it's another bit of public narrative that Pat Powers has deleted.)

The 2010 Fourmile Canyon fire near Boulder, Colorado, did not involve significant stands of beetle-infested trees. But there had been significant "fuel treatments" to thin trees in an effort to reduce wildfire risk. Did these fuel treatments reduce the risk of wildfire? Mr. Kurtz sends me link-hopping to discover that, in the 2010 Fourmile Canyon fire near Boulder, Colorado, the Forest Service says the answer appears to be no:

Fuel treatments had previously been applied to several areas within the fire perimeter to modify fire behavior and/or burn severity if a wildfire was to occur. However, the fuel treatments had minimal impact in affecting how the fire burned or the damage it caused [Russell Graham, Mark Finney, et al., "Fourmile Canyon Fire Findings," USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, August 2012].

The report cautions against general inferences, but it says that narrow treatments areas, failure to remove slash piles and other surface fuels, and failure to maintain treatment areas after cutting appear to have contributed to the failure of fuel treatment efforts to mitigate the Fourmile Canyon fire. Not conducting prescribed burns of slash piles after cutting appeared to make the fire worse.

In other words, just cutting down a few trees isn't enough. If you're really trying to change fire behavior, you've got to clear canopy and surface fuels (see p. 59, Figure 48 in the report, which shows a home in the middle of the forest that did not burn, apparently thanks to clearing a lot of trees).

There's an argument that aggressive removal of every dead tree in the forest is bad for the ecosystem. Dead trees, says ecologist George Wuerthner, provide vital habitat and food for ants, martens, bats, woodpeckers, salamanders, and grizzly bears (bears eat ants!). But those dead trees on the ground are part of the surface fuel that the Rocky Mountain Research Station report is talking about. Plus, standing dead trees pose greater risks for firefighters.

So I'm left wondering: can Black Hills beetle suppression meet the goal of fire suppression without much more widespread removal of trees and surface materials?

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