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Business & Economics

Anatomy of a cut: We look at the Bull Springs Timber Sale in the Black Hills National Forest

timber.jpg
Lee Strubinger
/
SDPB
A load of timber gets weighed at Spearfish Forest Products mill.

The attached interview above is from SDPB's daily public-affairs show, In the Moment.

Former forester Dave Mertz helps explain the Bull Springs Timber Sale in the Black Hills National Forest. We talk about the difference between overstory removal and the selection of individual trees for harvesting. We explore the changing ecosystem after a cut. And we discuss the controversy over sustainable forestry in the Black Hills National Forest.

This conversation is part of our ongoing Black Hills National Forest timber coverage. We have reached out to Neiman Industries for further insight into timber harvests, overstory removal, and sustainable sales. We have not heard a response yet.

The following transcript is autogenerated:

Lori Walsh:

Dave Mertz, welcome back to In the Moment. Thanks for being here with us once again.

Dave Mertz:

Oh, thanks for having me.

Lori Walsh:

We are having a series of conversations on this program on South Dakota Public Broadcasting and on In the Moment about the Black Hills National Forest and helping people understand not only what's happening right now, but a broader context of the history of the US Forest Service, and really the future in a time of climate change, and a time of diminishing resources, and how the US Forest Service is handling that.

I think a next step for us is really to break down an individual cut that's happening right now. You shared some photographs of something called the Bull Springs Timber Sale, and so I'm hoping today you'll kind of help our listeners walk through one specific sale and provide some context for it. So let's start with Bull Springs Timber Sale. This is under contract, and it takes roughly ... How would you explain to somebody about how expansive this area is, how long it will take to do the work of this timber sale? Help put it in perspective for our listeners please.

Dave Mertz:

Sure. The Bull Springs Timber Sale, I think it sold back in early fall. It involves, as far as timber harvesting, about 4,300 acres. Of that 4,300 acres, almost 3,000 acres of it is overstory removal. That involves, they go in and cut every tree larger than nine inches in diameter, and occasionally they leave a few large trees out there. They call those reserve trees. So they're doing some of that out there, but there's some cuts that every large tree is gone and all that's left is some small trees.

They're also doing about 1,300 acres of they call individual tree selection. That involves, they take a number of the large trees, but they're still leaving some large trees out there. Over time, with that type of management they'll always have some large trees. They'll come back maybe in 20 years, take a few more. And they just over time try to develop multiple age classes on that stand. So those are really two dramatically different types of harvest methods. And the overstory removal is, obviously from a visual standpoint, pretty dramatic.

Lori Walsh:

Yeah. What it looks like is, it looks like an entire area has just been clear-cut. To the novice viewer there was a forest, and now there is none. What context would you do that for? I mean when would a timber company just take every tree greater than nine inches in diameter? What's overstory removal for?

Dave Mertz:

Well, to provide you a little context, I'll go into a little history just of this particular timber sale. Back in about 2005, that's when the mountain pine beetle was really active and it was starting to come in to that general area. So one of the treatment methods to try to mitigate that is, you do a pretty heavy thinning, and they did that. It was called, kind of ironic, but the name of the timber sale was called the Bug [inaudible 00:03:55] Timber Sale, and over thousands of acres they thinned fairly heavy.

Then when the bugs came into that area, it really was fairly effective. It did have a pretty good mitigating effect. As a matter of fact, we took a lot of people out there to show them how that was working. Even back in I think 2013 we took ... Well, Kristi Noem, she was the representative back then, we even took her out there and showed her that area. We took a lot of people out there because we were kind of proud how that worked. So time goes on and the Forest Service is under a lot of pressure to produce timber to keep the harvest levels up.

So now they're back into those areas that they thinned about 15 years ago. And because there are some smaller trees that have grown in the understory one approach is, you go in and take off all the overstory trees, the large trees, and then let the smaller trees eventually grow back up. Now, it is a legitimate treatment, but over the many thousands of acres that the Forest Service is doing it on I think that's what causes the problems. And certainly the people who live out there right now are really kind of shocked by what's happening, and frankly I don't blame them.

Lori Walsh:

What's left when we say the understory? Like how tall are those trees? If all the nine inch in diameter and above trees are gone, what is left? It doesn't look like much in the picture. But if you're walking through that physically, how tall are the remaining trees?

Dave Mertz:

Well, those can vary. I mean there's some stands out there that maybe the trees are 15 feet tall. But then there's some out there that the trees are only four feet tall or even less. So obviously the taller the understory trees from a visual standpoint it doesn't look as bad. But when you've got really kind of in some cases a dense thicket of small trees there, it is not too appealing, or it's not what people think of when they think of the Black Hills National Forest.

Lori Walsh:

Yeah. There's more than one thing that we're talking about here, and one of them is the sustainability. And I want to ask you about that as far as like when is the next time they'll be able to come in and harvest any kind of timber from that unit for example. But there is also this idea of aesthetics and what we think of as a forest, and landowners whose land is adjacent to this now. So talk a little bit about the optics first of all, the wildlife that's in there. How does it impact the areas around it and the people who live around it when that kind of removal happens? What happens next?

Dave Mertz:

Well yeah, that's a good question. There's a number of things that happen. And at the level that they're doing it out there you essentially change the microenvironment out there. Because you've removed all the large trees, which large trees have an effect on wind for one. The people that live out there are going to see increase winds because they don't have the trees out there any longer. And wildlife use different stages out there, so some of them will make use of some of that kind of area. But the wildlife that prefer mature stands of trees, obviously that's not going to work very good for them and they'll move on to other places.

You know that there are bird species like the goshawk that for nesting habitat they require large trees and actually more dense spans of trees and those areas are not a lot of use to them anymore. And just for the people that live out there, most people buy property thinking they want to live in the forest. Just yesterday we were with some people that right next to their property all the trees were cut. They didn't anticipate that when they bought their property and they're a little shocked, and I don't blame them.

You also asked, "What happens down the road for a stand like that when it's cut?" Well, around here as an average, across the Black Hills some areas are more productive than others. But roughly it probably takes about a hundred years to grow a 10 or 12-inch diameter tree, which that's kind of the minimum for a sawlog size tree. So yeah, you're looking at beyond a usual lifetime really before somebody's going to be coming back in there to cut sawlogs again. It's kind of even hard to get your mind around. But trees do not grow that fast here in the Black Hills. Not like some other areas.

Lori Walsh:

What can you tell by looking at the stumps of some of these trees about where they were at in their growing years?

Dave Mertz:

Well, that's another good question. Back in 2005, 2006, when a lot of these areas were thinned, and if you go and you look at the fresh cut stumps that are out there, it's pretty interesting. Because you can see from the growth rings, which every year they put on an annual growth ring, and there's a big jump in growth from when they were thinned back then. So some of them had some really dramatic increase in growth from that response to the thinning.

Which it's good and really makes sense. But the sad part is they're still putting on really good growth and now we've gone and cut them down. And from a forester's perspective, I really don't think we need to be cutting those trees down. They're growing well, putting on dramatic growth, and we just cut that off. And the reason, I mean just to be honest, is to provide volume to the timber industry. That's why it's happening.

Lori Walsh:

So not every logger, not everyone working in this industry, is going to answer this question the same way, or in a monolithic unison voice. But have you talked to people in the industry who are troubled by how exactly this logging is being done?

Dave Mertz:

Yeah, I have personally, and I've also heard a number of things secondhand that they're not really comfortable. The people that are out there in the woods doing the work, the loggers. It's hard, difficult work and I admire them for that. But a lot of them are not comfortable with what's going on either. But the reason that it's happening is because ... I mean what it really comes down to, this is what happens when you've got demand is higher than the supply and then when you get there soon you have to do some drastic things. And this is kind of what it comes down to. So the loggers aren't comfortable with it. It's not what they've had to do over the years. They're more used to thinning the forest, and now they're really making a dramatic difference out there. But it's what the Forest Service sold, so I mean they're just doing what the Forest Service sold.

Lori Walsh:

Remind listeners who the sale goes to. Who's making money off of this timber sale?

Dave Mertz:

Well, I mean the largest sawmill industry here is Neiman Industries. They have a sawmill in Spearfish and one in Hulett. That's the largest, and then there's several other smaller sawmills around the Black Hills. So I mean they're obviously making money. The Forest Service makes money when they sell the trees. The loggers are typically under contract to the sawmills and of course they're making money. So I mean everybody is making some money, which is perfectly fine. That's a good thing. But somebody, and it should be the Forest Service, has to be thinking about this long term. I mean they're required to think about long term and that's been the struggle here.

Lori Walsh:

Any final thoughts that you wanted to add questions that I should have asked you that I didn't ask? What's the next important thing in this story as we continue our coverage?

Dave Mertz:

Well, I think that the Forest Service has made some announcements that it's reducing its timber volume that it's going to sell, and that's a good thing. But when these things happen you're always subject to political pressure, and a number of our South Dakota politicians have spoke out about this. And they will try to put pressure on the Forest Service, and I'm afraid they're going to turn that around. I hope not, because the Forest Service I think is on the right track now to try to take the forest to where it needs to go. So I guess we're just going to have to see what happens here in the next while, next six months or so, and see where things go.

Lori Walsh:

Meanwhile, sales continue to happen and trees continue to be cut.

Dave Mertz:

Oh yeah. Yeah, and also I'd like to add, I personally and I think a number of other people, want to see this use of the overstory removal dramatically reduced. I mean if people really knew what was going on out there I think most of the people, South Dakotans in general because they value the Black Hills, if they knew what was happening I don't think they'd be very happy about it.

Lori Walsh:

We will continue our coverage on In the Moment. We'll post some of Dave Mertz's photographs with some captions to help you understand what you're looking at on our website at sdpb.org/news. Dave, thanks for being here as always.

Dave Mertz:

Well, I appreciate talking with you.

Lori Walsh:

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