MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:
Now, if you happen to be near the Mount Rushmore National Memorial these days, you'll likely hear the sound of a chainsaw. Loggers are cutting down pine trees around Mount Rushmore. It's part of a drastic response to an onslaught of mountain pine beetles now threatening the park.
South Dakota Public Broadcasting's Charles Michael Ray reports.
CHARLES MICHAEL RAY: The Black Hills of South Dakota are turning brown. Thousands of acres of pine trees in the central part of the hills have been killed by mountain pine beetles, and Mount Rushmore is near the center of the epidemic.
BRUCE WEISMAN: It's a matter of controlling the exponential growth of this pine beetle. We've seen this explosion and it's coming right over the ridgeline, directly at us right now.
MICHAEL RAY: Bruce Weisman is the National Park ranger leading the fight against the pine beetles at Rushmore. It's a battle that includes this.
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MICHAEL RAY: Crews are cutting down pine trees below the four faces and feeding them into huge wood chippers. Weisman says to save this forest from destruction, the smaller overgrown pine trees on 500 acres of this national park must come down. He says this is about more than beetles. Bug-killed trees are prone to burn, and one lightning strike could start a major wildfire.
WEISMAN: Our fuel loads would be so tremendous that catastrophic firestorm would sweep right over the top of the memorial, and it would be a catastrophic loss of all facilities.
MICHAEL RAY: Rushmore is now in the middle of the biggest thinning operation in the monument's history. The idea is that thinning out the trees will make this forest healthier. But critics, like Brian Brademeyer with the group Friends of the Norbeck, say the beetle problem is being overblown to give big timber companies access to adjacent public lands.
BRIAN BRADEMEYER: This whole beetle hysteria that dead trees are more fire-prone than green trees, it's all self-serving, logging institution building. They should just stay in their offices.
MICHAEL RAY: While some environmentalists are critical of the Park Service for going too far, other locals say government officials aren't doing enough.
JACK BRADT: It's almost like waiting till the horse goes out and then you shut the barn door.
MICHAEL RAY: Jack Bradt has helped run a wilderness outfitter in the Black Hills since 1977. Fresh from an afternoon of work on his dude ranch, a bead of sweat lines the brim of his straw cowboy hat, and his pearl-snap Western shirt is dusty and frayed.
BRADT: Essentially, everything that I have worked all of my life for is in potential danger because of the situation that, you know, we've got going here.
MICHAEL RAY: Bradt says the thinning now under way at Rushmore should have happened on a wider scale years ago. But the pine beetles and the wildfires that threaten Bradt's livelihood may be linked to climate change - beetle populations are normally kept in check by very cold winters, and it's believed warmer winters have allowed them to expand.
Millions of acres across the western United States and up into the Canadian Rockies are now infested.
Dan Licht is a biologist with the National Park Service. He says even with mitigation efforts at places like Rushmore, there's a good deal of uncertainty over what will happen next.
DAN LICHT: If climate change does indeed warm up the area, we have warmer winters, the pine beetle infestations could become even worse. And even with our best efforts and our best treatments, we could still have a pine beetle infestation.
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MICHAEL RAY: Logging is not pretty. Big machines are ripping up the forest floor. But park officials here say to do nothing would increase the risk of a much bigger disaster. For now, the future of the forest around Rushmore hinges on what the beetles do next.
For NPR News, I'm Charles Michael Ray in Rapid City, South Dakota.
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