War against SD tree bugs enlists unlikely fighters

Joe Shark's Native American heritage taught him to be leery of the timber industry on the South Dakota reservation where he grows apples and gooseberries, but a threat from an enemy no larger than a fingernail impelled him to grab a saw and join the loggers.

For more than two decades, tiny pine beetles have been a colossal pain for two competing camps in the forests of the Black Hills region — the American Indians seeking to preserve the trees and the timber workers who are chopping down thousands for profit. The infiltration of the bug has left countless trees dead, severely threatening both missions.

It has reached such epidemic levels lately that Shark and other tribal farmers with longstanding opposition to logging aren't just muting their resistance but chipping in. They're helping to clear the infected trees in order to save the non-infected ones.

"I don't agree with logging, and I never have, (but) I know in my heart I'm doing the right thing," said Shark, who spent a week this spring training to join the scores of loggers. "We are warriors for the land, and we have a duty and obligation to take the steps to leave something for the next generation."

To ensure that the fallen trees aren't wasted, the Native Americans are hoping to put the wood to use by building wooden homes on the notoriously run-down and poverty-stricken reservation.

So far, the Lakota Logging Project has trained about 15 Native Americans, including Shark, with plans to train many more. It marks the largest-scale project to date involving a nonprofit group aiming to help combat the beetle epidemic, said Adam Gahagan, senior forester with Custer State Park.

"The Black Hills are sacred to our people," said Ramona White Plume, 51, a resident of the reservation. "For generations, people have gone into the Black Hills and haven't desecrated it. Trees are a living entity. They have families also."

Angel Munoz, who owns a Rapid City logging company with his wife Barbara, said he isn't surprised that the fight to save the trees is drawing unlikely allies considering that the pine beetle threat is worse than it has ever been.

"It's getting kind of rough," Munoz said.

The mountain pine beetles attack in cycles, infecting the wood with a fungus that gives it a blue hue. While the first discovery of this beetle in the area dates back to around 1900, the most recent epidemic began in the 1990s on pine trees from Baja California in Mexico to British Columbia in Canada. The insects have infected a swath of the western United States that threatens the timber industry, already ailing from the hobbled housing market.

The blue stain can cut the wood's value by two-thirds, said Carson Engelskirger, forest programs manager with the Black Hills Forest Resource Association. The coloring doesn't affect the strength of the wood, but consumers mistake the fungus for mold or a defect, relegating the lumber to being used for purposes such as crating or the backing of inexpensive chairs.

Bill Coburn, a procurement forester with Neiman Timber Co. in Spearfish, S.D., said his biggest concern isn't the color of wood but rather thinning the forest to reduce the destruction and expansion of the epidemic.

While driving through the winding roads of the Black Hills, Coburn pointed out daubs of rust-colored trees killed by the beetles among the lush green pines. He worries about the fire hazards posed by the dead trees, the costs associated with picking them up from the roadways and the negative effect the spotty hillsides could have on property values.

"If we are really, truly serious about removing the cancer that's growing in this area, you don't leave any parts of the cancer left on the landscape," Coburn said.

Because beetles are poor fliers and rely on wind to help them move, the best way to slow the infestation is by taking down the infected trees. Dense, overgrown forests strengthen the epidemic and they enable beetles to release a concentrated attractant that draws hundreds more beetles to the tree. The inspects burrow beneath the bark, endlessly chewing and releasing the fungus until the tree is corrupted from the inside out and dies, eventually falling to the ground.

Dave Ventimiglia, who co-founded the Lakota Logging Project, said the nearby Native American community can benefit in return. He hopes to eventually raise the $150,000 it would cost to build a saw mill on Pine Ridge reservation. That would allow loggers to bring back logs to the reservation and hopefully replace the dilapidated mobile homes in which so many of its residents live.

A contract with the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department allows the Lakota loggers to remove 20,000 beetle-infested trees from Custer State Park. For each tree cut down, the crew makes $10. So far, the Ventimiglias have put in $30,000 of their own money to front training and equipment costs.

The Lakota loggers are expected to continue felling the trees until they stop for the summer. Ventimiglia said he hopes to bring the loggers to Aspen to cut infested trees on the property of a ski company, allowing the loggers to stay employed over the summer while also collecting more wood to build wooden homes.

Shark, who grows such things as buffalo berries and Indian potatoes on the land, said history has proven the beetles won't go away on their own but can be contained through hard work.

"If we get a thousand trees down in the foreseeable future, we'll make a difference," he said. "We'll feel good."