Controversy stirs over possible cut to logging

Gray Hughes

This is the first part of a series looking at the the possibility of a logging reduction in the Black Hills and its impact.


A plan by the United States Forest Service aims to protect trees in the Black Hills National Forest but there are fears that the plan could cause great harm to the timber industry.


The plan, spelled out in a draft general technical report (GTR) “Timber Growth and Yield in the Black Hills National Forest: A Changing Forest” says that current timber practices are unsustainable and calls for a reduction in timber harvesting.


According to the draft GTF, the Black Hills National Forest saw a timber harvest of 153,534 CCF (CCF equates to 100 cubic feet). If that practice were to continue, the live sawtimber harvest would be depleted within the next several decades.


A standing live sawtimber volume of approximately 12 million CCF would be needed to meet the current allowable sale quantity of 181,000 CCF. However, current live sawtimber volume is at 5.9 million CCF and the current conditions within the forest do not support an allowable sale quantity of 181,000 CCF, nor do the current forest conditions support an annual harvest of 153,534 CCF that happened in 2019.


“Furthermore, the current forest conditions in 2019 and probable growth and mortality estimates suggest a saw timber program on the (Black Hills National Forest) with an annual harvest of 70,000 to 115,000 CCF per year would be possible,” the draft GTR reads. “Nevertheless,

these harvest levels would allow the live sawtimer inventory amounts to increase to 6 million CCF in approximately 60 years and return to the level needed to support (allowable sale quantity) as identified in the current forest plan (181,000 CCC within a century.”


However, the plan has raised some concerns at the county level.


Scott Guffey, natural resource director for Pennington County, told the Pennington County Commission during a meeting April 21 the drop is “substantial.”


“To be honest, it’s a valuable area for South Dakota,” Guffey said of the forest. “It’s the reason why a lot of us live here. …The forest industry is very vital.”


Reducing the allowable harvest, Guffey said, could lead to mountain pine beetle infestations or possible forest fires because the forest is not being thinned at a proper rate in his eyes.


Plus, the economic downfall from a reduction in timber harvest could be cataclysmic to the local economies. In total, the forest product industry accounts for $120 million annually to the local economy while employing 1,400 people.


District 1 commissioner Ron Rossknecht said the cut in the timber harvest is of great concern to both himself and his district, which includes Hill City and Rushmore Forest Products, which is owned by Neiman Enterprises, a company that specializes in forest products.


“In my district, we have the sawmill in Hill City, which employs roughly 80 personnel,” Rossknecht said at the April 21 meting. “If this (plan) comes to fruition, that would probably be one of the first sawmills that Neiman owns that could be greatly impacted by this.”


Rossknecht said he was “totally in support” of Guffey sending comments to Black Hills National Forest officials at the Rocky Mountain Research Center.


A meeting to discuss those comments was held May 1.


Rossknecht reported back after the meeting that himself, Guffey and Commissioner Lloyd LaCroix attended the two-hour audio meeting at the Pennington County Commission building.


“Right now, there is only a draft that can be modified,” Rossknecht said. “However, the final report is expected to be complete around the middle of August 2020.”


The way Rossknecht saw the meeting is that there are two sides: the timber industry and the various government agencies. One, he said, would like more acreage to log and the other wants a more conservative approach, which aligns with the draft and the parameter set forth in the draft.


“One thing that both sides agree on is they both want a resilient and vibrant forest for years to come,” Rossknecht said.


Ben Wudtke, of the Black Hills Forest Resource Association (a trade association that represents forest product companies and associated stakeholders in the Black Hills), addressed the commission during the April 21 meeting.


He said, looking at the current situation, that the timber industry is at a crossroads, and they have been able to see that the industry would be at a crossroads for some time and it isn’t the first time the Black Hills has been at a crossroads.


“If you look back at the previous (pine beetle) epidemic in the 1970s, although it wasn’t as large, it got a lot of folks’ attention as any epidemic should,” Wudtke told the commission. “At that time, there were decisions made by the communities and by the Black Hills National Forest themselves that we want to stave off the risk of having another mountain pine beetle epidemic.”


At that time, a plan was created as to how to prevent another epidemic which called for harvesting twice as much timber as what the GTR calls for now.


But between fires in the 2000s and the pine beetle epidemic several years ago there is a lot of concern about how these have impacted the forest.


“On the other side of that, we know this forest has a propensity for growing a lot of wood on an annual basis,” Wudtke said. “So there has been an effort to try to balance all of that and a recognition that we need much stronger information than we had five years ago.”


To deal with these problems, a task force was created that involved the Black Hills Forest Resource Association.


Out of that task force came a recognition that more — and stronger — information about the forest such as how much standing timber is available, how much growth there is in the forest and the mortality rate.


“Our concern is how some of that is being used and anytime that you get a data set of that size, you need to take a minute and say ‘let’s make sure all the I’s are dotted and all the T’s are crossed,’” Wudtke said. “And the Forest Service has not done that, to be honest. We’ve taken a look at that, we have hired some outside consultants, as well, to help with that process. And it’s developed a number of questions and concerns from our end.”


But even more than the possibility of the loss of jobs comes the threat of an unhealthy forest, Wudtke said.


Even with using the data to mitigate damage and threats, there have been pine beetle infestations and wildfires, he said.


“There’s no sense that we should grow the forest back to the very conditions that started the mountain pine beetle epidemic and the wildfires in the early 2000s,” Wudtke said. “That’s what’s on the table as a proposal: to grow the forest back to those conditions. From our perspectives that just doesn't make sense.”

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