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Loggers, tribe fight pests’ threat to trees

SPEARFISH CANYON, S.D. - American Indians and loggers have been longtime rivals in the forests of South Dakota’s Black Hills region, but they have joined forces to fight a common adversary.

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 growing threat from tiny pine beetles has impelled him to grab a saw and join the loggers.

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For more than two decades, the tiny insects have been a colossal pain for the 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 levels lately that Shark and other tribal farmers with longstanding opposition to logging are helping to clear the infected trees to save the noninfected ones.

To ensure that the fallen trees are not 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.

Angel Munoz, who owns a Rapid City logging company with his wife, Barbara, said he is not 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.

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