Black Hills National Forest Fire Risk and Management Plan Reviewed

Jun 6, 2002

June 6, 2002 — During the recent Farm Bill negotiations, Rep. John Thune (R-SD) brought to the attention of the Conference an emergency situation developing in the Black Hills National Forest due to the mountain pine beetle epidemic, storm damage, and drought. Department Operations, Oversight, Nutrition, and Forestry Subcommittee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, (R-VA) convened a hearing on Thursday to address this situation, specifically the public safety and forest management hurdles facing the Forest and surrounding communities.

"We tried during the Farm Bill Conference to include an amendment that would have given the Forest Service the ability to, quite simply, do their job, and conduct fuel reduction activities to reduce the threat of catastrophic fire. But unfortunately, we were flatly turned down by the Senate Democrats, led by Senator Tom Daschle," said Goodlatte. "I believe legislative action is needed and it is needed now to avert catastrophe. Moisture levels in the Black Hills are below normal, and they are seeing new fire starts almost daily. It is just a matter of time before a fire starts and becomes uncontrollable in these areas."

In testimony before the Subcommittee, the Honorable Mark E. Rey, Under Secretary for Natural Resources and the Environment, United States Department of Agriculture, said, "two areas, Beaver Park Roadless Area and Norbeck Wildlife Preserve, have unique legal challenges that have eluded our ability for resolution through judicial or administrative means. Simply put, court proceedings have prevented implementation of our proposals for treatment—timber sales, thinning, and fuel treatments for example—in these two areas."

Litigation that began in October of 1999 has prevented the Forest Service from taking management actions that would reduce the risk of wildfire faced by the Forest today.

The two areas at issue were of concern to Mr. John Twiss, Forest Supervisor, Black Hills National Forest, because "they are overgrown or infested with pine beetles resulting in thousands of dead and dying trees. This condition and three years of drought, combined with the close proximity to communities, private property and municipal watersheds, spurred the Forest to call all litigants together in an attempt to break the gridlock so that vegetative treatments could take place. So far, we have not succeeded."

"We are neglecting our responsibility to act as stewards of our nation's forests when we sit by, and let catastrophe occur," said Goodlatte. "We need to look for ways to give the Forest Service the ability to do what Congress originally authorized them to do in 1905 when they created the Forest Service—manage the forest."

One option discussed by the Subcommittee was H.R. 4766. This bill, which has been introduced by Rep. Thune, would declare the Black Hills a disaster area and allow the Forest Service to manage for fire prevention. "While I am eager to make something happen, I am concerned that environmental groups will pursue lawsuits preventing the critical forest management that is supported by my constituents," said Rep. Thune. "I hope they understand that this is a critical matter, a matter of safety for the residents, property, and economy of the Black Hills, and it must be resolved as quickly as possible."

The Black Hills National Forest is comprised of 1.2 million acres of national forest system land located in Southwestern South Dakota and eastern Wyoming. The Beaver Park area includes a 5,000 acre inventoried roadless area southwest of Sturgis, SD. The 34,000 acre Norbeck Wildlife {Preserve was established by Congress in 1922 as a special designation within the Black Hills National Forest. It is located adjacent to Mt. Rushmore National Monument and Keystone, SD.

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