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Environment

Sawmill owner says logging reductions could shut down largest mill in Black Hills

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

The owner of the largest sawmill in the Black Hills says it may shut down if logging levels are reduced.

The Forest Service is proposing to reduce timber sales anywhere from 35 to 50 percent. The agency says recent logging levels are not sustainable.

One by one, 12 ft long 1x5’s rip through a planer inside the Spearfish Forestry Products mill just west of Black Hills State University.

The planer rips off a thin layer of the wood, smoothing out the surface of the plank before it heads to market.

Republican Governors Kristi Noem and Mark Gordon, of Wyoming, are on a mill tour with owner Jim Neiman.

Neiman already closed a mill in Hill City earlier this year. The company owns this mill in Spearfish, as well as one in Hulett, Wyoming.

“We want to make sure we have a resilient forest here,” Neiman says. “If we destroy it that’s not what we want either. I have five grandchildren—I’m a third generation. I want to take it to the fifth. If we destroy this forest that’s not good either.”

The Spearfish mill supports about 200 jobs. If the Forest Service reduces logging to proposed levels, Neiman says mills will close.

“That is not enough wood to keep this mill running, here, alone,” Neiman says. “It potentially—that volume will potentially shut down one and a half sawmills of ours.”

Other industry leaders say a reduction in timber sales will harm the region’s entire forest products economy.

However, U.S. Forest Service research shows the timber inventory is decimated following years of pine beetle infestations and large wildfires. They’ve killed millions of trees in the last 20 years.

Jeff Tomac is supervisor for the Black Hills National Forest. Timber harvests are measured in cubic feet – or CCF. Tomac says loggers have taken an average of 191,000 cubic feet out of the forest each year. It plans to drop that number by 50 percent.

“We are looking at an average of 90,000 to 100,000 CCF over the next three years," Tomac says. "Next year’s number is looking at 124,000 and a little less over the following couple of years.”

A cubic foot is a little less than a cord of firewood stacked 8 feet high, 4 feet long and 4 feet wide.

A recent report from National Forest researchers says harvest levels should be around 80,000 cubic feet over the next few decades.

“History shows that allowing the forest to recover after large disturbances provides opportunities to adjust future harvest levels,” the report said. “Also, tending of young forests can promote recovery and produce sawtimber volume more quickly.”

Tomac says the timber industry is an important tool for current and future forest management. He says he hopes the industry stays healthy.

“I understand the impacts of the numbers that we are coming out with on the Black Hills that we’re anticipating for the next three years," Tomac said. "I also understand that we are actively looking at options, again across the country, to figure out how we can sustain industry.”

Others want to put pressure on the forest service to keep timber sales at the current rate.

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Lee Strubinger
Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon and South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem tour the Spearfish Forest Products mill.

Governor Kristi Noem wants the state and timber industry to conduct its own timber survey. Noem questions the data from the forest service.

“People who live here, who worked on the land for decades, know that what the Forest Service is giving us for information isn’t accurate," Noem said. "If we can make sure we’re backing up what we know to be sure in real research and surveys and studies and present that, then maybe they will change their projections for the timber harvest in the future.”

Noem and Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon hope to recruit the governors of California, Colorado and Oregon to push the Forest Service to maintain current logging levels. Noem wants to create a bipartisan coalition to protect jobs in the timber industry in states that have seen recent wildfires.

“They’ve been dealing with the reality of that, the threat to public safety, the costs of it. See if they would be interested in going to meet with the forest service with me," Noem said. "It is about industry, it is about protecting jobs, but it’s also about protecting lives. They’ve had huge fires where people were threated.”

Noem says states may work together to pay outside consultants to perform timber surveys.

In the meantime, a Black Hills timber industry group is filing an administrative challenge to the Forest Service report about timber sustainability. That's not a court challenge, but it could end up there.

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