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Expedited forest plan calls for more thinning, flexibility in NE Wyoming

This undated photo provided by the University of Colorado shows a mountain pine beetle fighting through the copious resin production by an attacked lodgepole pine. Centimeters away, orange frass in the pitch proves successful entry of other mountain pine beetles into this tree. (AP Photo/University of Colorado, Michael Wente) Copyright 2010, The Associated Press

By KEVIN WOSTER Rapid City (S.D.) Journal,writer

Black Hills National Forest officials will rely on streamlined regulations and extensive commercial tree thinning in a new attack plan against the mountain pine beetle aimed at protecting vulnerable areas before the bugs hit.

Forest Supervisor Craig Bobzien said the Mountain Pine Beetle Response Project would target 248,000 acres of highly vulnerable woodlands within the 1.2-million-acre forest -- located in western South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming -- for treatment in advance of beetle. The plan, released Monday, was developed over more than a year and included public comments and environmental review.

Commercial thinning would be used on almost half of those acres -- 122,000 -- over five to seven years to make them more resistant to the destructive bugs and less likely to erupt in wild fires, he said.

"It's hard work, and in many cases, it's expensive work," Bobzien said. "But it's worth the effort."

Bobzien said the response project includes a variety of treatment options and costs about $70 million over the five to seven years. On an annual basis, that is slightly more than current forest management costs, which are weighted heavily toward pine-beetle control work and fuels reduction.

Bobzien said forest officials could put additional money to good use through the response project. But its effectiveness is about more than just money, he said.

"We'll be able to respond much faster and adapt to what's going on out there in nature. We'll be able to move at a much faster pace," Bobzien said. "This allows us to be out in front of the beetle, which is where we're most effective."

The project was authorized by the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003, aimed at thinning thick forests of hazardous fuels, insects and disease. Additional pressure in recent years for streamlined regulations came from private citizens, state and local officials, the timber industry, and South Dakota's congressional delegation.

With support from the delegation, the Forest Service worked with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the White House Council on Environmental Quality to find acceptable ways to streamline regulations, Bobzien said.

Rep. Kristi Noem and Sen. John Thune, both Republicans, celebrated Bobzien's announcement Monday.

"One of the major deterrents for the U.S. Forest Service to effectively fight pine beetle infestations has been its inability to take responsive action, such as aggressive thinning, when and where it is needed due to [National Environmental Policy Act] restrictions," Thune said. "This latest Forest Service action plan with a project area of 248,000 acres is an excellent step forward as it allows the U.S. Forest Service more flexibility in the battle against pine beetles.

Noem called the project "a huge step forward" that can make a difference in pine beetle control.

"This first-of-its-kind project gives our national forest additional tools to get ahead of the pine beetle on a larger scale and could serve as a blueprint for other western states to follow," she said.

South Dakota's delegation has helped secure additional federal money for pine beetle work in the past. And Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson said that work must continue.

"Now, we need to make sure that the Forest Service has the resources necessary to deploy these management tools," Johnson said. "Securing funding will be made all the more difficult by cuts to discretionary spending, but the health of the Black Hills National Forest is too important to our communities to give up the fight."

Frank Carroll of Custer, a former Forest Service official now working as a private consultant, said the increased flexibility of the project decision can "make a difference in people's backyards" for private landowners adjoining the forest. Carroll said adding $5 million to $10 million over the life of the project "could do incredible things."

But the increased flexibility for the Forest Service will result in dramatic changes on its own, he said.

"I think that's the most important thing," Carroll said. "It's not always about the money."