By Senator John Thune
Over the past several years, the growing pine beetle epidemic has devastated parts of South Dakota's landscape, including the Black Hills National Forest (BHNF). This epidemic has not only ravaged our countryside, but it has led to economic loss for the entire state and created unsafe conditions for residents and tourists.
In recent months, I have continued to flag this growing problem through my seat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, which has jurisdiction over the U.S. Forest Service. On February 15, 2012, I questioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack, at a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing about mountain pine beetle control efforts by the Forest Service. Following that hearing, I met with Lawrence County officials and timber industry representatives in Spearfish regarding their cooperative agreement with the Forest Service.
Last month, the Forest Service made an additional $1 million available to fight pine beetles in the BHNF in response to a request from the South Dakota Congressional delegation on November 14, 2011.
On March 12th, I-along with Senators Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) and Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.)-met with Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell to discuss ongoing efforts to fight the pine beetle infestation in the BHNF.
In an effort to more effectively combat this ever-increasing problem in the BHNF, I introduced the National Forest Emergency Response Act (S. 2277) in the Senate on March 29, 2012. Representative Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) introduced identical legislation on the same day in the House of Representative. Our legislation would require the Secretary of Agriculture to more quickly respond to the extreme fire hazard and unsafe conditions in national forests that have deteriorated to dangerous levels due to pine beetle infestation, disease, drought, and fire risk, which would benefit local stakeholders.
Specifically, the National Forest Emergency Response Act would authorize the "Emergency Circumstances" designation under the Healthy Forest Restoration Act of 2003. My bill would also enable the Forest Service to make and implement critical forest management decisions related to pine beetle infestations and other disaster conditions much more quickly than currently allowed. The Secretary of Agriculture would be required to designate at least one national forest in each state within 60 days.
Because the Agriculture Committee is scheduled to act on the Farm Bill in the next few weeks, I have worked closely with the Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and other members of the Committee who have national forest land in their states to have language from the National Forest Emergency Response Act included in the Farm Bill. The Chairwoman has assured me that my legislation will be included in the Forestry Title of the Senate Farm Bill.
I will continue to press ahead until this common-sense legislation passes both chambers to provide the Forest Service and our state with much needed reforms to more efficiently battle the pine beetle epidemic.