- Associated Press - Monday, February 3, 2014

SPEARFISH, S.D. (AP) - Overhead, soaring above the crowns of ponderosa pines and creek-carved canyons is his aerial support, securing time-sensitive imagery marking the progress of his troops.

On the ground, spotters and sawyers weave beneath a browning canopy, crossing streams and climbing mountains, all to gain higher ground.

They are on a mission. And the enemy is a quarter-inch tall.

As commander, Heck leads as many as 100 troops per day in his yearslong battle against the mountain pine beetle, a diminutive enemy of voracious appetite that has invaded wildlands from British Columbia to Mexico. Closer to Heck’s Black Hills backyard, the tiny insects have scarred tens of thousands of trees and killed millions more.

Confined to an 800-square-mile area of operations, Lawrence County Invasive Species Director David Heck will oversee a $1.5 million budget this year to combat the beetle and slow their steady progress.

“On any given day, we have about 50 people out in the woods,” he told the Rapid City Journal (https://bit.ly/1buQ4Sn ). “We’ve been working through the fall, since right after the government shutdown ended, and we’ve marked 34,000 trees in Lawrence County for cutting.

“Those who served as spotters before are now administering, so that our crews are handling slash appropriately, that they’re cutting the right trees and counting the trees cut every day,” he said. “We have until the end of February to complete all of our work.”

Supported by two independent contractors with more than 100 chain saw-wielding sawyers, Heck said they are gaining ground despite beetles devastating the Central Hills and mounting a concerted northerly attack.

“We are making progress,” Heck said. “The populations are still building in Lawrence County, and we are being heavily impacted by the Rochford area. If we stopped doing what we are doing, it wouldn’t take long for things to really get out of control.”

As proof, he sites reconnaissance photos supplied by the state Division of Forestry whose over-flight studies show that in 2011, bug trees covered 10,073 acres in the county. In 2012, that acreage fell to 6,918, a reduction of more than 3,000 acres.

“I know our treatments are working,” Heck said. “If we didn’t treat between 2011 and 2012 and had the type of growth we’ve documented in previous years, we potentially could have had 30,000 acres affected by bug trees. But we’ve seen a drop of 30 percent.”

Faced with a tenacious foe capable of flight and seemingly endless in number, it would be easy to throw up his hands and surrender to fate. But Heck said it’s a war worth waging not only for pine-clad cliffs, neighbors and family, but for commerce, conservation and future visitors to the beautiful Black Hills.

“Aesthetics is more than just for the people who live here,” he said. “It’s important to the people who visit here, too.

“This will save the trees. This will help us sustain a healthy forest.”

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