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War against SD tree bugs enlists unlikely fighters

Associated Press Modified: May 6, 2012 at 2:01 pm •  Published: May 6, 2012
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SPEARFISH CANYON, S.D. (AP) — 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.

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