How do you combat a tiny beetle that is killing acres and acres of lodgepole forest that long has served as a gorgeous backdrop to Mount Rushmore National Memorial? That's the puzzling question an interagency team of entomologists and foresters is trying to answer.
Mountain pine beetles are about the size of a grain of rice. Rather innocuous in appearance, when they descend on a forest en mass they have the ability to kill lodgepoles in quick fashion. Now, this plight long has been part of the natural ecosystem of the West. Lodgepoles evolved with these beetles and developed defenses to deal with them -- they can smother them with sticky pitch, and the trees relatively rapidly propagate.
Winter's usually have aided the lodgepoles by sweeping bitterly cold temperatures onto the forests, temperatures of 40 degrees below zero and more that were sufficient to kill the beetles. Unfortunately, warming winters in recent years have displayed few of those numbing cold snaps, and the beetles have flourished. And the results can be seen in the dying, reddish-tinged pine forests that become highly flammable.
In January, officials at Mount Rushmore recognized the severity of their pine beetle problem and canceled this year's Fourth of July fireworks display in a move to prevent forest fires. Now the memorial staff has pulled together specialists from Custer State Park, South Dakota Department of Agriculture - Wildland Fire Suppression Division, South Dakota State University, United States Geological Survey and the U.S. Forest Service to brainstorm an action plan for battling the beetles.
During a meeting last week the group discussed the current condition of the pine beetles in the central Black Hills, identified issues and concerns surrounding the beetle problem, and explored treatment options and resources available to address the outbreak. So far park managers have identified pockets of trees affected by the mountain pine beetle, and have taken action to remove some of them from the park for decontamination.
Because the mountain pine beetle epidemic has the potential to affect some of the memorial's fundamental resources, including the forested setting of the sculpture, old-growth ponderosa pine, and scenic vistas, the park’s management team is considering options to mitigate effects while returning the forest to a more natural, historic and sustainable landscape.
Integrating scientific research information, current condition reports, and experience from area specialists, the memorial’s Rapid Resource Assessment Team has compiled an action plan that combats the mountain pine beetle on several fronts. Included for consideration in the draft plan are steps to prevent infestation of high value trees within visitor use areas that help maintain the visual landscape around the sculpture, measures to seek out and attack mountain pine beetles that have already entered the park, and proactive thinning and buffering of the memorial’s forest against the encroaching mountain pine beetle population. These actions are in concert with projects being carried out by Custer State Park and the Black Hills National Forest to mitigate the mountain pine beetle infestation.
"This level of cooperation among partner land management agencies and experts is critical to helping the National Park Service explore and develop effective methods to keep this infestation from getting out of control within memorial grounds," said memorial Superintendent Gerard Baker. "This landscape has been and continues to be treasured by many cultures over the ages and we have a responsibility to preserve the unique natural resources in the park and the Black Hills.”
Chris Holbeck, who is heading the Rapid Response Action Team, is hopeful the planning sessions will hit upon a plan "to make a difference for this outstanding area, and for the people who love and
"Here at the memorial, the landscape, and the sculpture are of local, regional and national significance, and the memorial is small enough in size, that aggressive action on the ground is possible. Indeed some of the actions recommended in the plan could be completed in the first 100 days," said Mr. Holbeck. "The plan will be open to public review and we are very interested in what the public has to say regarding our recommended approach."
The draft plan is expected to be available this week for public review. When it's ready, you'll be able to find it at http://parkplanning.nps.gov. At that site, if you go choose "Mount Rushmore National Memorial" from the drop-down list you'll be able to find information on the action plan and a place to submit your comments on the proposal. The website is available for public comment until March 15. Copies of the plan will also be available for viewing at the Mount Rushmore Information Center, located at the memorial, until March 15.