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Future Of Black Hills Logging Hinges On Disputed Data

Black Hills National Forest

The Black Hills timber industry is either logging itself to death, or logging sustainably.  

Both conclusions have been reached by opposing sides reading the same report.  

The report, written by Forest Service researchers, says there aren’t enough ponderosa pine trees in the forest to sustain current logging.  

A stakeholder group is working the Forest Service to finalize the report. One member of the group is Dave Mertz, a Forest Service retiree. The group is supposed to help decide how many trees will be cut, but Mertz said they’re stuck on the report, which is called a General Technical Report, or GTR.  

“It is apparent that this stakeholders group is basically divided into two camps,” Mertz said. “One side believes that the data and the GTR’s basic conclusions are correct. The other side feels that the GTR is flawed and should not be believed or acted upon.”  

The divide has been 20 years in the making, and a lot has happened. The Black Hills suffered a mountain pine beetle epidemic. It endured the three biggest wildfires in its recorded history. Millions of trees died.  

But logging continued at rates dictated by policies set two decades ago. In fact, there’s more logging in the Black Hills than any other national forest.  

Most-Logged National Forests By Volume Cut, FY 2019 (CCF) 1. Black Hills National Forest, 194,579.30 2. Kootenai National Forest, 178,350.99 3. Colville National Forest, 170,742.73 4. Chequamegon/Nicolet National Forest, 141,977.78 5. Willamette National Forest, 140,285.61

Now it’s decision time.  Should logging continue at the current rate? Or should it be scaled back? And by how much?  

The Forest Service has been laying the groundwork for those decisions, said Jerry Krueger, the acting forest supervisor. 

“We’ve spent a considerable amount of time and invested a lot of money to acquire some very high-end data,” he said. 

Krueger said researchers used aerial imagery and ground work to estimate the volume of trees big enough for logging. Those trees are called sawtimber.  

So how much sawtimber is there? Think of a logging truck. If all the available sawtimber in the Black Hills was cut, it would fill 720,000 truckloads.  

It sounds like a lot. But Mike Battaglia said it’s not enough to sustain the current rate of logging. He’s one of the Forest Service researchers who wrote the report. In the report’s worst-case prediction, he said, “We’d run out of sawtimber within the next 34 years.”

He's not saying the forest would run out of trees. He’s saying it would run out of trees big enough to cut, on land suitable for logging. And that would kill the local timber industry.  

To save the timber industry and keep the forest healthy, some members of the stakeholder group say logging has to be reduced. That side of the debate includes Forest Service retirees and representatives of conservation and environmental groups. They say the data is clear.  

On the other side of the debate are the state foresters of South Dakota and Wyoming, and the timber industry. Ben Wudtke is executive director of the Black Hills Forest Resource Association, representing Black Hills timber companies. He said the current rate of logging can be continued sustainably.  

“There are a lot of concerns involved with some of the assumptions and numbers reported within the General Technical Report,” Wudtke said. 

He said the report doesn’t include all the territory in the forest that could be logged. And he said the report assumes pine beetles will continue to ravage the forest. But he said the timber industry has been successful at fighting beetles by thinning tree stands.   

In decades past, debates like these deteriorated into litigation. Wudtke wouldn’t say whether the timber industry is considering a lawsuit.  

“The first thing we’re concerned about is our families and their livelihoods,” he said. “Beyond that, we would have to wait until the final report comes out and read it at that time, and make any judgments at a later date.”  

Stuck in the middle are Black Hills National Forest officials, including Krueger, the acting supervisor. He plans to keep bringing people together electronically.  

“Our goal is never to collectively resort to court if we can avoid it,” Krueger said. “I think the best way for us to move out to avoid controversy is to make sure everybody’s at the table – everyone’s voice is not only heard, but incorporated in whatever the outcome is.”  

The authors of the report are considering the input of the stakeholder group. A final version of the report is expected in August.   

The next discussions of the issue will be this month and next month during regular meetings of the Black Hills National Forest Advisory Board.

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