Newspaper columnists find that the easiest topics to write about are those that are familiar.
I could easily pen something about writer's block at this moment. It's a subject that at times is too near and dear to my heart.
I instead have chosen to embark on a more risky path, and write about forests. Specifically, the Black Hills National Forest. I have not lived or grown up in a forest; my wife and I did spend a couple nights in a motel near Crazy Horse several years ago. That's about it. I am, admittedly, a plains dweller.
According to news reports, which I deem to be highly accurate, the Black Hills National Forest is currently being ravaged by beetles. It also appears that while the bugs have been chewing away at the trees, people have been doing a lot of head scratching, and disagreeing as they try to come up with the best solution to tackling this problem.
I love nature, and I'm all for protecting the environment. I must admit, however, in my non-expert opinion, that I'm glad that the U.S. Supreme Court decided to not hear an appeal by environmentalists who sued the government to stop a timber management plan in the beetle-infested forest.
Friends of the Norbeck and the Native Ecosystems Council filed suit in 2010 to stop the U.S. Forest Service from implementing a management plan for 28,000 acres in the Norbeck Wildlife Preserve.
The agency says the plan – thinning out stands of dense ponderosa pine with prescribed burns and the logging of 6,000 acres – would reduce the risk of catastrophic forest fire and benefit the birds, goats, deer and elk that call the preserve home. State and federal officials also hope clearing the timber will arrest the destructive march of the mountain pine beetle.
But the environmental groups claimed the government did not adequately assess how the timber removal would affect wildlife and old-growth forest in the preserve, which was established by special federal legislation in 1920. At the heart of the preserve is the Black Elk Wilderness, named after the Oglala Sioux holy man and home to Harney Peak.
The Friends of the Norbeck claim, on their web page, that "Anyone driving west from Mount Rushmore on Highway 244 is confronted by the severe damage being inflicted upon the Norbeck Wildlife Preserve, not by pine beetles but by the US Forest Service. That is why on February 14, 2011, Friends of the Norbeck and Native Ecosystems Council Petitioned the US Supreme Court for a Writ of Certiorari, asking the Court to review of the Norbeck Timber Sale case."
The original lawsuit was filed in Colorado, but the state of South Dakota successfully petitioned to have the case moved to South Dakota federal court. That court dismissed the case, as did a federal appeals court.
And on April 23, the nation's highest court declined to hear the case.
Here's just a tiny sample of the "head scratching and disagreeing" that I referred to earlier:
Brian Brademeyer, a spokesman for Friends of the Norbeck who lives in the preserve, recently told the Rapid City Journal there is no evidence that "excessive logging" allowed by the Forest Service has any environmental benefits. Once pine beetle infestations reach epidemic levels, he said, little can be done.
Black Hills National Forest Supervisor Craig Bobzien disagreed.
"Professional wildlife biologists in the state were essential in the project design, and commercial logging is one of the tools to treat and remove some of that biomass – for example, in and around pine forests that have encroached around hardwood," he said. "But commercial harvest is just one part of that."
The last major fire in the area, in 2000, burned 83,508 acres in the Southern Black Hills. That was before the beetle infestation took hold. Scientists estimate half of the Norbeck Wilderness Preserve now is affected.
It sounds like the Friends of the Norbeck simply want nature to take its course, and in this case, that likely may not bode well for the forest. Rather than letting beetles overrun the entire preserve, it would seem that some human intervention is needed – including the thinning of trees by prescribed burns and logging.
That's my non-expert opinion.