Pine beetle infestation heading for Rushmore

The army of mountain pine beetles that has killed most of the trees in the Black Elk Wilderness is marching toward nearby Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

In fact, the advance scouts of the beetle army already have landed at Rushmore, infecting a few of the old-growth ponderosa pines around the monument.

Unless something is done, the beetles could kill most of the pine trees in the 1,200-acre forest surrounding the mountain carving, turning the forest into a stand of “gray ghost” trees that pose a danger for catastrophic fire, memorial and forestry officials say.

The beetle infestation, which has killed essentially 100 percent of the trees in the Black Elk Wilderness and is devastating the rest of the Norbeck Wildlife Preserve, is heading east to Rushmore, says John Ball, an entomologist and forestry professor at South Dakota State University.

Ball is a member of the Dakotas Society of American Foresters, which met recently with state and federal officials on the threat to Rushmore’s trees.

Some level of infestation at Rushmore within the next couple of years is a given, Ball says. But he said there are measures that can be taken, such as thinning and spraying, to lessen the impact.

The prospect of a forest of gray, dead trees surrounding Mount Rushmore is unsettling from an esthetic standpoint, but the beetle infestation also threatens a rare resource -- old-growth ponderosa pines, says Navnit Singh, chief of interpretation at Mount Rushmore.

“Mount Rushmore has the second largest continuous stand of old-growth ponderosa pine forest in the Black Hills,” Singh said. “This is one of the things that attract people here. We certainly don’t want to lose that, especially if we lose them in a catastrophic way.”

Singh said park crews already have found evidence of mountain pine beetles in some large, old-growth pines in the slot canyons behind the monument. They are studded with “pitch tubes,” a sign of the trees trying to pitch out pine beetles that have already bored into the bark.

These large, previously healthy trees have survived a long time, Sing said. “They’re at risk now.”

Singh said the advancing beetle infestation around Harney Peak can be seen from Rushmore’s Native American Heritage Village on the walking trail under the presidents’ faces. “It’s a great view. The bad part is it’s becoming a red top view now,” he said. “It’s coming this way.”

Singh and other officials are also worried about the fire danger posed by dead and dying trees in the Black Elk Wilderness, which butts up against Rushmore.

“We’re only one or two ridgelines away from very high risk for fire danger,” he said. “Fire doesn’t operate with any regard to boundaries. Bugs don’t, either.”

Rushmore curator Bruce Weisman, who directs cultural and natural resources at the memorial, said he is working on an emergency plan for moving the Rushmore museum collection in case of a wildfire.

State Rep. Mike Verchio, R-Hill City, said local officials already are putting together evacuation plans for Keystone, Palmer Gulch Resort and campgrounds in the area. “The concern we have is that if there is a major fire before the needles fall off those trees, it’s going to be a crown fire and move extremely quickly,” said Verchio, who represented the Legislature and the Black Hills Regional Multiple Use Coalition at the Dakota Society of American Foresters meeting.

“The other concern, obviously, is people don’t come to the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore to see brown trees and gray rocks,” said Verchio, the former executive director of the Hill City Chamber of Commerce. “They want to see healthy forests.”

Verchio was critical of what he called the federal government’s slow response to the pine beetle outbreak. “I think it’s a real shame that it took an infestation to threaten Rushmore for them to really sit up and take notice of what’s going on,” he said.

Verchio said plans under way to protect Rushmore are long overdue. “We need to start fighting the good fight on this bug infestation before it’s way too late, as it is now for the Norbeck.”

Ball, however, said the meeting hosted by the Dakota Society of American Foresters was productive and timely. “Why not start looking at what can be done now rather than waiting until after it’s here?” he said. “I commend the park for looking at it and saying: ‘We’re next. What can we do?’”

Frank Carroll, chairman of the forestry group and public affairs officer for the Black Hills National Forest, said the Forest Service is required by law to go through many more steps to respond to situations such as beetle infestations than it did decades ago.

“Since the early ’70s, the country and Congress and the culture have more and more demanded that federal agencies follow these rigorous processes,” he said.

Thirty years ago, the Forest Service could take immediate action to stop insects, like it did in 1984 at Bear Mountain, Carroll said.

“Now there is a process of at least 18 months to do everything that the country, the Congress and interest groups want us to do, and by that time, bugs have flown a couple more times.”

Carroll said the science on the insects is clear. “We know that if you can move quickly and remove the insects, you can stop the outbreak. Unfortunately, our processes have not caught up with our scientific knowledge.”