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Research kicks off debate on future of Black Hills logging

Seth Tupper/SDPB

New Forest Service research says the Black Hills National Forest could be depleted of trees suitable for logging in the next 30 years. 

That’s if the current level of logging is allowed to continue. A public debate about adjusting timber harvest limits began Friday. 

The U.S. Forest Service hosted a three-hour meeting that was held by teleconference because of the coronavirus pandemic. About 175 people called in, including 20 from groups allowed to speak. 

All speakers seemed to agree that the Black Hills is at a crossroads after decades of bigger and more-frequent wildfires, and after a mountain pine beetle epidemic that lasted from 1998 to 2016. 

But speakers disagreed about what to do next. Representatives of environmental and conservation groups called for reduced timber harvests. 

Norbeck Society President Bob Burns said, “The annual volume of timber sold must be reduced.” 

Dave Mertz, a Forest Service retiree, said the agency knows something needs to change but has faced pressure to maintain logging at a target level established years ago. 

“We’re cutting down our future,” Mertz said. “Why did we do it? Why did we do it now? To meet the timber targets.” 

Representatives of timber-industry groups said a drastic reduction in logging could re-create the dense forest conditions that made the Black Hills more susceptible to wildfires and beetles. One of those representatives was Tim Danley, vice president of Forest Products Distributors in Rapid City. 

“Forest products companies are not the enemy,” Danley said. “We are a major tool that the Black Hills National Forest has in maintaining a healthy forest for over hundreds of years.” 

Timber-industry speakers also disagreed with the Forest Service’s research findings about tree numbers. And they said reducing the timber harvest could drive timber companies away, along with some of the 1,400 jobs in the Black Hills timber industry. 

Currently, the Black Hills produces a greater volume of timber than any other national forest. The region’s ponderosa pines are made into trim boards, posts, poles, particle boards, heating pellets and other products. 

The Forest Service’s existing forest plan for the Black Hills includes an annual allowable sale quantity of 181,000 CCF of timber (“CCF” is a unit of volume equal to 100 cubic feet). To manage the forest’s timber resources, the Forest Service conducts timber sales, and companies bid for the right to cut and process the trees. 

Over the past couple of years, the Forest Service completed an analysis of the Black Hills National Forest using aerial imagery and test plots. The analysis says the forest’s volume of living trees suitable for logging – known as sawtimber – is 5.9 million CCF. 

Forest Service researchers say that number needs to be 12 million CCF to sustain the currently allowable harvest of 181,000 CCF. 

At the end of Friday’s meeting, Forest Service officials invited questions and comments on the research. They said another meeting will be scheduled in a few weeks to continue discussion among various interest groups about appropriate future logging levels. 

Seth supervises SDPB's beat reporters and newscast team. He works at SDPB's Black Hills Studio in Rapid City.
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