'I see greed:' Concern raised with logging results near Custer
Jessica Brown gazes at a portion of the national forest near her family’s home.
Last summer, logging crews working on the Bull Springs timber sale, cut down the biggest pine trees in sections surrounding Round Mountain. With that forest overstory gone, what remains are dense clusters of small ponderosa pine that look more like bushes.
“When I look at this and many, many, many other areas in the Black Hills that this has happened to I see no sustainability," Brown said. "I see greed and I see a lot of disrespect for the people that live here.”
A year after the logging, the land still bears scars. Large equipment cut lanes for easier access and now those lanes look like miniature ski runs during the off season.
Brown homeschools her children. She points to a limestone ridge about a mile away and says it’s a place her children would often go.
“We would go sit on that ridge. Look for elk. Check the wildlife. We can’t do that now. Everything behind that hill is gone," Brown said. "It’s too hot to walk in the summer. There’s no shade. It’s just a mess. It has completely changed our way of life. That’s not what we signed up for when we moved out here.”
Brown and her family have lived here for six years. They run their own sawmill and construction company. They’ve lived with results of the overstory removal for a year now.
Brown said losing the mature trees has changed the wind flow on her property—snowdrifts are taller in the winter, and their house is 10 to 15 degrees warmer in the summer.
“We love the Black Hills. This is not what we want to live in," Brown added.
In the 2000’s, the U.S. Forest Service thinned dense ponderosa stands to get ahead of the pine beetle epidemic. The transformation allowed young, understory trees, often called 'doghair' to become very dense.
Then, five years ago, the Forest Service approved the Black Hills Resilient Landscapes project, which includes management recommendations for nearly the entire Black Hills.
The plan was designed to help the forest recover from the pine beetle epidemic and large-scale wildfires that had changed the structure of the landscape.
Mark Van Every was the forest supervisor when the Resilient Landscapes project was approved. He said the forest had nearly double the number of mature trees under 16 inches in diameter than the forest plan called for.
To keep the forest healthy, he said those smaller trees needed attention.
“Those are going to be, over time, more susceptible to fire, more susceptible to insects and disease if they’re not thinned and managed," Van Every said in 2018. "Keeping those older trees on the top of those stands continues to add more seed to the soil and increases the density of those trees.”
Back at the Bull Springs acreage near Custer, retired forester David Mertz questions what the project has accomplished.
“The only thing I can come up with is they provided saw timber to the sawmills," Mertz said.
Mertz said the understory that remains will eventually create a problem.
Thick, dense tree stands will compete for sunlight, water and nutrients. Eventually, if they aren’t thinned, they’ll become more susceptible to infestation or fire in the future.
“What we’ve done is we’ve created a whole bunch of young stands about the same age and because there’s not the money to thin them a lot of them are just way too dense and too thick," Mertz added.
Thinning a forest’s understory is costly.
The contract for the Bull Springs Timber sale is what’s called a stewardship contract. It gives logging companies mature timber to cut in exchange for services—in this case, thinning doghair stands.
The full Bull Springs project area covers 13,422 acres. Of that, Nieman Timber Company has commercially harvested around 4,000 acres.
Nieman’s contract with the federal government requires that the company thin 1,385 acres at a cost of $415,500. A forest service representative said that work is not complete yet.
An interview request to Neiman Enterprises was declined. However, an official with the company said in a statement the timber industry initially supported the concept of the Black Hills Resilient Landscapes [BHRL] project as proposed.
"However, the timber industry has been very clear about opposing treatments under BHRL that do not make sense silviculturally, including holding meetings with the BHNF to express our concerns ever since the first sale was offered under the BHRL decision," said Paul Pierson, Neiman's Black Hills Forest Manager.
"Although overstory removals to release the next stage of forest growth are one important step in forest management, we have been clear with the BHNF from the first sale that many of the areas the BHNF has implemented this action do not make sense," Pierson added.
Matthew Daily, a natural resources officer for the Black Hills National Forest, helped organize the stewardship timber sale project. He said the project runs through 2025.
“The follow up service work to thin those smaller trees is not completed yet," Daily said. "These contracts take several years to complete. As funding comes available, the intention was to continue going back and continue that work into the future.”
Daily said an added benefit of the stewardship sale model is producing wood fiber for the timber industry, which he said is a tool that helps thin the forest.
“We wanted to make sure we were producing enough timber and wood fiber products for them," Daily added.
The timber industry also views itself as playing a crucial role in forest management, but industry officials say they’ve been strained in recent years. Nieman closed a mill in Hill City in 2021, and the company says it’s at risk of closing another.
Carl Fiedler is a forester, ecologist and retired professor from the University of Montana. He’s also a co-author of several books about trees and forests in the American West—one focused on the Ponderosa pine and another, more recent book on the Douglas fir.
Fiedler said if the remaining Bull Springs doghair stands are thinned, and the ponderosa trees are given a chance to flourish, the effects of overstory removal can diminish in a few years.
“You’d be surprised how quickly—I’ve seen it over and over again—oh they thinned that stand too much," Fiedler said. "Five or 10 years later then somebody will say ‘Why didn’t they thin this more. The crowns are touching already.’”
Forest service officials said there is federal bi-partisan infrastructure money targeted to thin forests and reduce the fuel load. There are more stewardship contracts planned for 2024 that will include thinning work.
But as the value of timber comes down and operating expenses go up, the amount of that service work in return for timber contracts will decrease. That means in the future, more tax dollars will be needed to thin our forests.